MCU Retrospective: Avengers: Endgame

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. If you heard me crying in the theater every time I watched this, no you didn’t.

80/100

Seeing Avengers: Endgame in theaters was akin to a religious experience (or at least I would imagine, having never had a religious experience myself), but with crowds much rowdier than most congregations: there were cheers, there were gasps, there was a hefty dose crying, there was a palpable sense of excitement and tension that pervaded movie theaters across the globe. Every emotional beat landed, every fan service moment hit just the right notes, every music swell struck the right chords. If The Avengers and Avengers: Infinity War were big, they were nothing—nothing—compared to this. 

Upon retrospection, some—but certainly not all—of that midnight opening magic has waned, as we look back now upon what was ultimately a very large speed bump for the MCU, which took only a slight breather before barreling forwards again. But, like Infinity War before it, like The Avengers before that and Iron Man before that, the fact that Endgame succeeds at all is astonishing. How do you properly conclude a 22-movie arc? How do you end a franchise that has reshaped the very fabric of pop culture?

Well, the real answer is, you don’t—you just keep making movies. But even though the MCU has continued on, Endgame still serves as a monumental, well, endgame, wrapping up loose threads, bidding emotional farewells, and finally letting all those years of buildup pay off.

Structurally speaking, Endgame is much neater than Infinity War, helped, of course, by the fact that nearly every character except the original Avengers and a handful of others got turned to dust by Thanos (Josh Brolin). The latter cut between disparate storylines, and even by the end not all of them had collided; Endgame, on the other hand, clearly divides itself into three acts, each with a proper beginning, middle, and end, and despite its lengthy runtime, this tactic helps the movie go by swiftly.

Act one neatly continues the tone from the end of Infinity War. In other words, it’s bleak. Though its opening should ostensibly be cheery, there is a sense of unease as Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), on house arrest from the events of Captain America: Civil War, teaches his daughter (Ava Russo, daughter of director Joe and niece of other director Anthony) how to shoot a bow and arrow while his wife, Laura (Linda Cardellini), prepares hot dogs and his other sons play catch. It’s a scene of domestic bliss, but as grizzled survivors of Infinity War, we the audience know better than to trust a scene of happiness, and so the tension continues to mount until the inevitable happens: Clint’s entire family gets dusted. That this is predictable makes it no less harrowing, and so that pit in the stomach, so familiar from Infinity War, settles back in for the ride.

Meanwhile, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), the lone survivors from the battle on the planet Titan, become stranded in space, and we get the first inkling of how important Nebula will become to the film. After all, not everyone is important enough to play paper football in space with Iron Man himself, and even within this brief scene we begin to see Nebula thaw as the two try to cope with their losses by flicking wads of paper at each other. (Nebula’s reaction to being told that she won is perfect: shock and disbelief, then pride, as she’s never won a thing in her life, especially not when compared to her recently-deceased sister, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora.) Yet soon the oxygen runs out, and things look even darker as Tony and Nebula stare down imminent death. Even Tony barely has any snark left in him.

Luckily, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) shows up to save them and take them to Earth, where they reunite with the remnants: Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce (Mark Ruffalo), Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), Rhodey (Don Cheadle), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and Steve (Chris Evans), who has shaved his glorious beard in a blow to straight women with taste everywhere. The opening two scenes had little dialogue, instead letting mood take precedence; here, when Steve and Tony come face-to-face for the first time since they nearly killed each other in Captain America: Civil War, that silence swiftly breaks. While at first it seems like the events of the past few days may have rectified the yawning gap between the two, soon Tony, looking absolutely terrible and horribly malnourished, lays into Cap: “What we needed was a suit of armor around the world. Remember that? Whether it impacted our precious freedoms or not, that’s what we needed… I said we’d lose. You said, ‘We’ll do that together too.’ Guess what, Cap? We lost, and you weren’t there. But that’s what we do, right? Our best work after the fact? We’re the Avengers, not the Pre-vengers, right?” Though the Avengers are finally back together, Infinity War has only widened the chinks in their armor. While Steve puts on a brave face, this is the most desperate we’ve ever seen Tony, and it’s most certainly the weakest he’s ever looked; Downey Jr. gives a fine performance of a man well past the end of his rope.

But even with the gulf between the Avengers, they manage to band together to track down Thanos and the Stones in an attempt to reverse the Snap. Yet Thanos, as established in Infinity War, isn’t just psychopathic for the sake of being psychopathic: he truly believes in his mission, and he knows the Infinity Stones could cause temptation for beings lesser than him, so he has destroyed the Stones, thus destroying the Avengers’ chance at bringing everyone back. 

When asked by Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in Infinity War what he will do once he accomplishes his goal, Thanos says, “I finally rest, and watch the sun rise on a grateful universe.” That’s how Infinity War ends, and that’s how we find our villain in Endgame. Driven to a rage fueled by the decimation of his homeworld, the death of his brother, and the culling of his people, Thor goes for the head this time, and with a splatter of blood and a quiet thunk as his head hits the floor, Thanos dies before the title ever flashes on screen. Yet it’s a hollow victory, because our heroes have well and truly lost. If the end of Infinity War was bleak, the beginning of Endgame is worse. 

Cut to five years later, and the Avengers have scattered. Only two remain at the Avengers Compound: Steve leads a therapy group (featuring cameos from Joe Russo and Jim Starlin, the creator of Thanos) and Natasha gathers intelligence from their allies scattered across the universe, including Rocket, Carol, Rhodey, and Okoye (Danai Gurira). Even if things might bear a slight resemblance to normalcy, it’s clear that grief has a stranglehold on everyone. So when Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) shows up when he was presumed snapped, suddenly there is a glimmer of hope. 

Scott, it turns out, wasn’t snapped (as you know if you watched the post-credits scene in Ant-Man and the Wasp), just trapped in the Quantum Realm until a fortuitous rat crawled over the right buttons in his van. Yet while five years passed in the outside world, only five minutes passed in the Quantum Realm, and through the power of some Quantum technobabble, Scott theorizes that time travel could be possible, meaning they could gather the Stones and undo the Snap. The trio brings this theory to Tony, who has retired to a cabin in the woods with Pepper and their new daughter, Morgan (Lexi Rabe), who is quite possibly the cutest, most precocious child to have ever existed. However, Tony has no interest in what they’re selling: he’s failed at saving the universe already, so best to focus on protecting what’s right in front of him. “I got my second chance right here, Cap,” he says.

So instead the team seeks out the next best scientist they know: Bruce Banner, who has come to terms with his Hulk half, becoming what is known as “Professor Hulk” (or “Smart Hulk,” take your pick), which merges Banner’s brain with Hulk’s body. There’s no real explanation for this (though there was a deleted scene about it), though it’s an innocuous enough development that seems to finally end the Banner vs. Hulk war that has been raging since 2008… at least, until Bruce shows up in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings looking one hundred percent human. But in Endgame, at least, there’s no drama surrounding Hulk’s destructive tendencies or the agony Bruce feels about his alter ego, so instead we watch Mark Ruffalo go around in an advanced Shrek cosplay, and luckily Bruce acting like a bit of a stoner and dabbing (no pun intended) with some fans (played by more Russo relations) is a fun enough time.

Unfortunately, Bruce can’t quite crack time travel, resulting in some very fun shenanigans with Scott turning into a teen, an old man, and then a baby. Back in his cabin, though, Tony figures it out, and finds himself torn between the idyllic life he leads and throwing himself back into the fray. “Something tells me that I should put it in a locked box and drop it at the bottom of the lake and go to bed,” he tells Pepper. But Pepper knows him; she knows the weight of that guilt would hang over his head forever, and she knows that he’s really only bringing it up so she can tell him that it’s okay. “But would you be able to rest?” she replies. It’s a brief moment of dialogue, but it perfectly encapsulates why Pepper and Tony work together in a way that precious few MCU couples do: they know each other inside and out, they have from even the first Iron Man, and weren’t simply thrown together because the MCU overlords dictated that the two main hot people of the opposite sex must bone. And so Tony returns to the Avengers Compound and gets to work.

Rhodey, Nebula, and Rocket also arrive to help out, and soon Bruce and Rocket go off to find Thor, who has not been doing so hot; in fact, he’s become a fat, depressed alcoholic who has locked himself in his cabin on New Asgard (aka Tønsberg, a town seen in Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, and Thor: Ragnarok), the place where the few remaining Asgardians have resettled, to play Fortnite and yell at a teenaged player styling himself “NoobMaster69.” 

In a film series full of some very attractive people, Chris Hemsworth has always stood out—or, at least, he’s had the most shirtless scenes, including this entirely unnecessary, frankly bizarre scene from Thor: The Dark World that exists only to show off Hemsworth’s glistening pectorals. To see him in a fat suit with tangled, unkempt hair and a tangled, unkempt beard is thoroughly shocking. “Fat Thor” tries to strike a balance it cannot always achieve: Thor’s slovenly ways are clearly positioned as funny (and often are), but underneath is a very raw anguish he is attempting to hide through booze and online gaming. Hemsworth, as in Infinity War, proves his dramatic chops here as he lets Thor’s self-hatred at his failings seep through: “Now I know that… guy might scare you,” Bruce begins, talking about Thanos. “Why would I be…? Why would I be scared of that guy? I’m the one who killed that guy, remember?” Thor scoffs, but he’s on the verge of tears as he says it. He dismisses Bruce’s request for help, saying, “Why don’t you ask the Asgardians down there how much my help is worth? The ones that are left, anyway.” Yet this powerful commentary on grief and the strength of Hemsworth’s performance occasionally gets lost underneath the surface-level jokes about Thor’s weight and unhealthy drinking habits (though Tony calling him “Lebowski” is pretty damn funny, to be fair); Thor is at his best in Endgame when we’re allowed to see glimpses of the simmering anger lurking underneath that he’s been trying to drown in beer, but that’s not always the case—he’s played just a little too often for laughs for his depression to be as effective as it could be. Case in point: Thor only agrees to return to the Avengers Compound when Rocket tells him there will be beer there.

Natasha, meanwhile, has gone off to find Clint Barton, who has gone on a killing spree against any sort of ne’er-do-well that survived the Snap, including the Yakuza, in an effort to bring (what he sees as) justice to a world without it. He re-enters the movie through a single take fight scene along the streets of Tokyo, culminating in a standoff against legendary actor Hiroyuki Sanada, who gets nearly nothing to do before Clint slices his throat. It’s a far cry from the family man we got in the first scene: he’s shaved part of his hair, he’s wearing a hood, he’s got a tattoo sleeve now, he’s edgy as all hell. Though no one ever calls him this, Clint’s new style has clearly taken inspiration from his Ronin persona from the comics, and while it’s brutal and a bit weird, it is an interesting path to take an otherwise largely unnoteworthy character from the MCU (at least when compared with his peers). Grief changes people, man.

So now we have now gathered all of our Avengers. Thus act two starts, and here the movie begins to get a little messy, as time travel flicks often do. 

The plan: go back in time and grab each of the Infinity Stones, regroup, and re-Snap. (During the planning sequence, there is an excellent bit of meta humor: when Thor explains the plot of The Dark World and the Reality Stone’s involvement in it, most people start to nod off or look utterly confused. Scott, meanwhile, has no idea what’s happening and is just happy to be involved, bless him.)

The team is split into four: Steve, Scott, Tony, and Bruce go to 2012 New York to nab the Mind Stone (from Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) scepter), the Space Stone (from the Tesseract in S.H.I.E.LD.’s possession), and and the Time Stone (from the Sorcerer Supreme on Bleecker Street). Rhodey and Nebula go to the planet Morag in 2014 to get the Power Stone and Natasha and Clint go to Vormir to get the Soul Stone, not knowing the sacrifice they will have to make. Thor and Rocket, meanwhile, go to Asgard in 2013 to get the Reality Stone, aka the Aether.

For such a gargantuan movie, Endgame is quiet: the first act saw almost no action, and what action was there did not elicit any fist pumps, the way Marvel action sequences are so often designed to do; act two also sees very little fight scenes, instead bouncing characters off each other in their small groups, focusing less on action and more on problem-solving. While there is good character work here, act two also serves as an excuse to make Marvel’s “Greatest Hits” album and poke good-natured fun at their lesser efforts; it’s almost entirely fanservice, but fanservice that feels well-earned after 11 years of movies, even if it is a little self-congratulatory. To those who have been there since the beginning, your indulgent overlords are here to reward you with easter eggs filled with tasty morsels.

Track number one: The Avengers. As Steve, Scott, Tony, and Bruce arrive in 2012 New York, we get glimpses of Loki, secret Hydra agent Rumlow (Frank Grillo), and Secretary of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra head Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). Steve, after being objectified by both Tony and Scott, even gets to fight his own 2012, stick-up-the-ass, mischaracterized self so he can grab the Mind Stone, successfully distracting 2012-Steve by telling him that Bucky (Sebastian Stan) lives. (“That is America’s ass,” he proclaims knocking his doppelgänger out.) Bruce goes to find the Time Stone, but instead of running into Stephen Strange, he finds Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One, back for a cameo which forces us once again to question if Swinton is completely human (meant as a compliment). While Bruce gets the Time Stone, a Hulk-sized kerfuffle occurs that ends with Loki escaping with the Tesseract so his mischievous adventures can continue in his own TV show. 

To remedy this, Tony and Steve travel back to Camp Lehigh (where Steve trained as Captain America and where he returned in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) in the 1970s, at a previous point in time where the Tesseract could be easily reached. Tony runs into his father, Howard (John Slattery), and finally comes to terms with his daddy issues, though their interaction leaves Howard a bit confused; we also glimpse a de-aged Michael Douglas as Hank Pym, with peeks at an old-school Ant-Man helmet. Steve stares at Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) through a window, but more on that later. They get the Tesseract easy peasy, and their interactions within this block with the people they’ve lost are poignant and affecting; it’s not all time travel jargon and discussion of Infinity Stones.

Track number two: Thor: The Dark World. On Asgard, Thor runs into his mother, Frigga (Rene Russo), and nearly falls apart when talking to her because he knows that she will die on this day. Yet her advice on failure is sage, and it sets Thor on a better path; when he summons 2013-Mjolnir and rejoices, “I’m still worthy!,” it’s a lovely, genuine moment for a character who is too often used as the butt of the joke in Endgame. Rocket, while Thor has this heart-to-heart, steals the Aether from Jane Foster (Natalie Portman); Portman, having disliked the production experience for The Dark World, appears through a deleted scene from The Dark World grafted onto Endgame, with a CGI raccoon added in the background. Voilà. Space Stone, Time Stone, Reality Stone procured.

So on to track number three: Guardians of the Galaxy. Rhodey and Nebula on Morag give us a chance to relive Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) “Come and Get Your Love” dance from Guardians of the Galaxy to excellent results. Good, silly fun. (“So he’s an idiot?” Rhodey asks.) While her sister Gamora was the stealth MVP of Infinity War, here the title passes to Karen Gillan’s Nebula. As Gamora’s role in Infinity War was much bigger than expected, and perhaps even bigger than her role had previously been in the Guardians franchise, so too does sister Nebula play a crucial role in Endgame, and Gillan gives far and away her best performance yet. Nebula and Rhodey prove to be an unusual but strong pairing, both bonding over their physical disabilities: “I wasn’t always like this,” Nebula murmurs as she looks at her robotic hand. “Me either,” Rhodey says, reminding us that the only reason he can walk is some fancy Stark Industries tech. “But we work with what we got, right?” It’s a brief scene but no less affecting because of it, proving that Endgame’s strengths lie in its character beats rather than fight sequences, of which we have had nearly none so far, and its plot, which is about to get a lot more confusing with the introduction of 2014-Gamora, 2014-Nebula, and 2014-Thanos as prominent characters.

Because, of course, Rhodey and Nebula aren’t the only ones hunting the Infinity Stones. Time travel in the MCU is not, as Bruce and Tony inform us, like Back to the Future. Each time you travel back in time, you create a branched timeline: when Steve, Tony, and company travel to 2012, for instance, they make an alternate universe where 2012-Loki escapes with the Tesseract and 2012-Steve knows that Bucky is alive. In the 1970s, there is now a branching timeline where Howard ran into a stranger who encouraged him to be a bit more present with his soon-to-be son, resulting in an alternate Tony who might not be saddled with severe daddy issues. Thor creates an alternate timeline where 2013-Thor doesn’t have Mjolnir (since his other self took it) and 2013-Jane gets the Aether sucked out of her more quickly, and so on.

Through some technological wormholes, 2014-Thanos finds out that our main timeline 2023-Nebula is hunting Infinity Stones and that 2019-Thanos bit it. Determined to win, he captures 2023-Nebula and hatches a plan.

Meanwhile, on Vormir (god, there are so many spinning plates in this movie and it’s not even as many as Infinity War), Clint and Natasha realize that the Soul Stone requires a sacrifice—“A soul for a soul.” As neither of them want the other to die, given their long and storied history, they have a brief scuffle over who gets to be the one to hurl themselves off the edge of a cliff. In the end, it’s Natasha.

Like Gamora before her, she dies to procure an Infinity Stone; unlike Gamora, she does so willingly. This, naturally, made some people very angry. However, here’s the thing: Natasha sacrificing herself for the Avengers, for the family that welcomed her even with her bloody past, is a perfect end to her arc. Of course it’s bad optics that the sole female Avenger kicks the bucket (in the same location one of two female Guardians died to boot), and yes, she did sometimes get the short stick in the MCU (especially in Avengers: Age of Ultron, ugh), but neither of those things negate that this was always how Natasha was going to go. Of course she would hurl herself off a cliff for those she loved—she has always been the kindest, most empathetic Avenger underneath her cool front, and to claim that Endgame fridged” her ignores the fact that her ending stays completely in character, and it ignores the fact that she actively chose to do this and that it wasn’t done to further a man’s tragic story but to save the entire universe. 

Yes, of course Marvel should do better by their female characters, and their oft-talked about “girl power” scene later in the movie feels even stranger than it would otherwise given the fact that they killed their most prominent woman just a half an hour earlier. But those are bigger, systemic problems to be addressed; Natasha’s farewell in Endgame isn’t a sign of the MCU’s mistreatment of women (though that certainly exists), it’s a sign that the writers understood her character, and that is far better than keeping her alive for mere tokenism.

And so, at great personal cost, the Stones are procured, and everyone—except Natasha—comes back intact. Well, except for the fact that 2023-Nebula is still on board 2014-Thanos’ ship, and 2014-Nebula has taken her place in 2023 Earth (like I said, it’s messy). So as the Avengers debate who gets to snap their DIY Infinity Gauntlet, 2014-Nebula helps to prepare for her father’s arrival.

Though Thor lays out a strong, sad case—“Let me. Let me do it. Let me do something good, something right,” he pleads—it’s ultimately Bruce who snaps, because not only is he the strongest Avenger, but because the Gauntlet’s radiation is “mostly gamma. It’s like I was made for this.” Sure? I guess? So he snaps, and the birds come back, and Clint gets a call from his wife: for a moment, all is well.

But then, act three: the battle and its aftermath.

2014-Nebula opens up the Quantum Tunnel and 2014-Thanos’ ship bursts out of it, which then promptly obliterates the Avengers Compound. 

It seems all is lost, especially when 2014-Nebula corners Clint, who is clutching the Gauntlet, and levels her gun at him. Luckily, 2023-Nebula convinced 2014-Gamora to join forces, and 2023-Nebula shoots her alternate timeline past self, a sign not only of her loyalty to the Avengers but also her deep self-loathing. But even if the Gauntlet is safe for now, when Tony, Steve, and Thor go out to face 2014-Thanos, he easily bests them. Knowing that they killed his alternate self in the future, the battle has become charged: “In all my years of conquest, violence, slaughter, it was never personal,” he tells our trio. “But I’ll tell you now, what I’m about to do to your stubborn, annoying little planet… I’m gonna enjoy it. Very, very much.”

But, as Thanos begins to well and truly wreck our heroes, suddenly Mjolnir begins to crackle with electricity and zooms not to Thor’s hands, but to Steve’s—the God of Thunder isn’t the only worthy one here. “I knew it!” Thor exclaims as Steve begins to wield the hammer against 2014-Thanos (it’s sick as hell). But yet again he is bested, and when 2014-Thanos reveals the army waiting in the ships above, any hope we gained quickly deflates. But Steve Rogers does not give up so easily. This shot of Cap standing against Thanos and his army is a beautiful, wordless way to convey this comic panel, but it is a hopeless image.

Then, suddenly, a familiar voice in Steve’s ear says, “On your left,” and, impossibly, things begin to look up. Slowly, and then all at once, everyone Thanos snapped away comes streaming in from sorcerer-conjured portals, and then excitement rushes in like a freight train. It builds, and builds, and builds along with Alan Silvestri’s now-iconic theme from The Avengers, and when Cap, Mjolnir and shield in hand, finally, finally, finally says, “Avengers… assemble!,” it is about the coolest fucking thing you have ever seen in a movie theater (just watch any number of the reaction videos on YouTube). It is pure fanservice, it is pure comic boy joy, it is—whether you like it or not—one of the most emotionally resonant moments for cinema audiences ever, and even years later, it still soars. Nothing either within the MCU or without will ever be able to match the utterly insane hype level for those entrances and that line.

Unfortunately, the battle that follows, like that of Infinity War, isn’t that interesting visually except for a few moments where the characters get to show off their powers in tandem with one another, but even those moments are disappointingly dull to look at. The success of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors the Russo brothers doesn’t lie in their visuals, but rather in their abilities to balance an assortment of different characters and coax out new sides of the MCU by thrusting said characters into new situations. Another battle hardly treads new ground, but it’s requisite for the MCU, and so here we are.

But it’s still got those requisite cool Marvel fight moments: Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) is an especially fascinating combatant, almost obliterating Thanos before he orders his ship to “rain fire,” and the game of hot potato played with the Infinity Gauntlet certainly keeps viewers engaged. 2014-Gamora, having no knowledge of Peter Quill, knees Chris Pratt twice in the crotch. Captain Marvel also arrives and withstands a headbutt from Thanos, which is cool, but it’s still no visual spectacle.

Of course, at long last, our heroes get the upper hand. Thanos gets the Gauntlet and goes to snap, proclaiming self-righteously, “I am inevitable,” but it doesn’t work, and a split-second later we realize why: Tony managed to steal the Infinity Stones from off the Gauntlet, and as we watch his Iron Man nanotech snake up his arm to form an iron glove, we realize with sudden, terrible comprehension what is about to occur (or at least it was terrible for me). With one last “I am Iron Man,” Tony snaps his fingers, and so the guy who started off as an unsavory, narcissistic arms dealer dies sacrificing himself for the rest of the world. 

And so in an inverse of Infinity War, it’s now Thanos and his lackeys that turn to ash which scatters over the smoking battlefield, yet the moment is not entirely triumphant as the cost of the snap quickly catches up to Tony.

“You can rest now,” Pepper tells him. That one line sums up Tony near perfectly: restless, reckless, prone to bouts of self-destruction under the guise of narcissism, ultimately driven by an obsessive desire to protect the ones he cares about. And now he’s protected the entire universe. He can rest now. It’s a powerful scene made all the better because there are no real last words, no drawn-out death whilst cradled in someone’s arms, no sugarcoating: he is broken and bloodied, he can barely even speak, he just waits long enough to see Pepper and then dies. 

Multiple someones were certainly going to die in Endgame—that was clear from the first. That it’s Tony who makes the sacrifice play lines up perfectly with his arc, and of course it’s our very first hero who does the impossible and stops Thanos, even if he loses his life in the process. This scene and the funeral that follows, where Pepper puts that first arc reactor—the one engraved with “Proof that Tony Stark has a heart”—in the water, and Tony has one final pre-recorded message for his daughter, is a fitting and bittersweet sendoff for the hero who kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe all those years ago. Love him or hate him, without Tony Stark, the MCU would not have come to be, and so this funeral is not only a farewell for Tony, but a tribute to the character (and actor) who started it all. All our heroes gather around for one last goodbye, and as the camera pans over the crowd, we see the legacy of not only Iron Man the character, but Iron Man the movie, and the enormous universe it spawned. 

Captain America’s sendoff, however, is a bit like an inverted Sour Patch Kid: it starts off sweet, but the more you suck on it and turn it over in your mind, the more it sours.

Tasked with going back in time to return the Infinity Stones to their rightful place on the timeline, Steve Rogers decides to take the long way ’round and stay a while with old flame Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell); when he comes back, he’s now an old man. Age and time, it seems, finally caught up with Steve, who hands his shield off to Sam to become the next Captain America

Both Sam and Bucky have taken that mantle in the comics, and both would have been good choices here to grapple with the legacy of that shield, each bringing their own unique baggage to the table—Sam as a black man in a world that repeatedly tries to deny him humanity, and Bucky for all the murder and whatnot—but ultimately Sam wins out. It’s a good choice (even if, from a more cynical viewpoint, Marvel only did it to garner brownie points and check off their diversity list), one which will hopefully pay off in the untitled fourth Captain America movie more than it did in Disney+’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

Yet even though Steve and Peggy’s ending tugs at the heartstrings as they finally get their dance, the whole thing sits uneasily. Post-Captain America: The First Avenger, much of Steve’s arc has been devoted to adjusting to the 21st century and all the moral ambiguity he now has to wade through; he mourned and grieved for the loss of his friends and loved ones, but he changed and adapted with the times. Now, suddenly, after we’ve spent so much time watching Steve figure out the modern world, he just ups and leaves?

It would be one thing if the films had shown Steve constantly pining after what he lost when he went into the ice. Of course they do, but only to an extent, and while the pangs of losing everyone he ever knew still hurt occasionally, Steve has moved on. The relationships he has built here, in this timeline, have been given far more weight than the ones he had back in The First Avenger, and to have him completely backtrack on his forward-moving arc to go back in time feels disingenuous and lazy. Christopher Markus himself once said, “He’s the most adaptive man on the planet,” but apparently failed to listen to his own words when writing Endgame.

Three things in particular make Steve’s ending leave a bitter taste in the mouth, with the first being the rules of time travel as established in this movie. As Endgame (and subsequent Marvel properties dealing with time travel) makes clear, travelling back in time creates a branched reality. Once you return to the moment you left in the main timeline, that alternate reality ceases to exist. (By these rules, Steve appearing at the lakeside randomly make any sense: as this is a different timeline from the one he grew old in, he couldn’t have just waited until this precise moment and moseyed on over to the Avengers Compound—he would have had to use the Quantum Tunnel doodad. But I guess it’s too much to ask for consistency, seeing as the writers and directors disagree on that whole alternate timeline thing.) This means that Steve went back in time, reunited with Peggy, presumably had a family, and then promptly erases everyone in that timeline from existence the minute he travels back to the future to give the shield to Sam. That is an incredibly selfish thing to do for someone whose actions, up to this point, have mostly been quite altruistic; even within the branched timeline that Steve creates, questions arise: Does Steve try to avert events like JFK’s assassination, or 9/11? Does he help advance civil rights? Does he rescue Bucky in this timeline before he becomes completely brainwashed? Or does he just sit on the sidelines, content with his own happiness?

Thing number two: Bucky. Whether you’re into “Stucky” or not, you cannot deny that Bucky has been a driving force all throughout Steve’s story. In The First Avenger, it’s the thought of Bucky being tortured in a Hydra prison camp that spurs Steve to truly become Captain America; in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Steve’s world gets turned upside down by the knowledge that Bucky still lives, and he nearly dies trying to save Bucky from himself; in Captain America: Civil War, Steve goes on the run from the United States government (…again) to keep Bucky safe, and then he breaks the Avengers apart for the same reason. You’re telling me that this guy, this guy who has laid it all on the line multiple times out of love for his best and oldest friend, would leave said friend—who is, by the way, still massively traumatized from losing an arm, being brainwashed, and then turned into an assassin for essentially Nazis—for a woman that he knew back in the 1940s for, at best, a year or two? Even earlier in the film, the only thing that broke 2012-Steve’s concentration was the mention that Bucky lived. The two exchange an astonishingly brief goodbye which echoes their one from The First Avenger: “Don’t do anything stupid until I get back,” but now Steve says that to Bucky instead of the other way around. “How can I? You’re taking all the stupid with you,” Bucky replies, but nostalgia can only get so far. They have a quick hug, and that’s it. For a relationship that was previously given so much thematic weight to be tossed aside with such little care is astonishing.

The third thing is the much-maligned Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), who does not appear in this movie, and no, she is not related to Steve, because in the original timeline she is from, Steve never married Peggy. Everyone needs to stop saying that she’s his niece. She’s not. Pay attention. 

Problems with Sharon, unfortunately, have been building since her introduction in Winter Soldier. Though her comic counterpart has a long and storied history both with and without longtime love interest Steve, Sharon in the MCU movies has been shamefully underused. Initially positioned as a love interest yet given little screentime or character, VanCamp and Chris Evans had precious little time to build chemistry; thus, when Steve and Sharon share a kiss in Civil War, it feels hastily tacked on, as if the only reason the two characters are together is because of their history in the comics, so of course movie fans didn’t take kindly to this development, especially fervent “shippers” of the Stucky and Steggy kind. 

Hayley Atwell herself has done little to help matters, saying, “Well, first of all [Peggy would] be turning over in her grave” at the thought of Steve and Sharon getting together. “She’d be like, ‘no.’ And she’d inject herself with the blue serum and become a super villain. She’d break out of her coffin and ground [Sharon]. She’d ground her. Then she’d kick Steve’s ass as well.” Yes, how feminist to pit two women against each other for the attention of a man! Thank you! Fans across Twitter and Tumblr were atrocious and misogynistic towards both Sharon and VanCamp, and it would have been hard for Markus and McFeely et al. not to notice. 

What follows is, admittedly, pure speculation, but it does not take much to imagine that this backlash—one that the MCU brought upon itself for not giving Sharon her proper due and rushing to throw her together with Steve despite having no buildup—caused Markus, McFeely, and the rest to backtrack and quickly reframe Peggy as the ultimate love of Steve’s life in Endgame, having him pull out his picture of her and make goo goo eyes at her through some blinds while no one mentions Sharon. It’s as if she never existed. It’s only Peggy and Steve, it’s always been Peggy and Steve, no one else has ever been as important in his life as she has (never you mind the fact that Steve—and I am repeating myself—broke the Avengers apart for the sake of Bucky!). Faced with a negative fan reaction, instead of fixing what wasn’t landing, Marvel retreated to something they knew worked, and so Steve goes back in time without ever saying goodbye to Sharon. Even if the writers and directors wanted to move on, it feels wildly out of character for consummate good guy Steve Rogers to just kiss and ditch. 

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will at least attempt to address some of this, but because Marvel wants us to like Steve Rogers and frames his reunion with Peggy as a morally unambiguous win, it’s never allowed enough leeway to truly tackle the abandonment issues that Steve’s actions would have saddled Sharon and most especially traumatized, formerly brainwashed, currently PTSD-ridden Bucky with because Marvel doesn’t want us to get mad at Captain America. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier at least tries to make Sharon a real character, though it feels like a slap in the face more than anything. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

If anything, Steve should have died and Tony should have retired. Logistically and logically this would have been difficult, as it would have been hard to explain why Tony didn’t show up to whatever world-ending events happen next, and if he did show up, there is the small matter of Robert Downey Jr.’s exorbitant payday. However, as cappers to their characters, it works (at least in my esteemed opinion) better for Tony, always so self-destructive and suicidal, to finally find peace rather than make the sacrifice play (besides, we already did that arc in The Avengers), and for Steve, the forever-soldier, displaced out of time, to lay down his life for the cause in heroic, tragic fashion. Even both of them dying would have been better than this logically flimsy, out of character ending which falls to pieces the minute you examine it more closely; besides, having only two Avengers die in Endgame feels a bit weak. No, more main character death does not make a story better, but thematically appropriate endings do, and Steve’s death would have been exactly that. 

This isn’t to say that Steve and Peggy’s reunion isn’t emotional—there’s a reason they stuck in the minds of fans, and there was nary a dry eye (mine were certainly very, very damp) in theaters upon watching them dance. It’s just a shame that none of it holds up to scrutiny. 

Well. Anyway. To round out the “Big Three,” Thor decides to hand the throne to Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and go off with the Guardians of the Galaxy. This is fine enough taken alone, and promises plenty of merry mayhem in Thor: Love and Thunder, but when taken in sum with the rest of his films, feels a bit like whiplash. In Thor, he abandons his reckless ways and rises to the task of kingship; in Thor: The Dark World, he abandons said kingship to be with his lady love; in Thor: Ragnarok, he once again takes up the mantle of king and assumes full responsibility for Asgard; in Endgame, he gives it all up again and passes the mantle of monarch to Valkyrie, who, while cool, has not exactly shown how or why she is the right pick to govern an entire race, even one whose population has been decimated. Thor, like Hulk, ping pongs around at the whims of the directors, and him reneging on his kingship feels like a rejection of his entire Ragnarok arc—there is no consistency to his choices, and this lack of consistency doesn’t feel like a purposeful character choice but rather Marvel just shuffling him around wherever they need him to go instead of letting his own arc be the guide. So we beat on, boats against the current… ah, never mind.

And so Endgame concludes: Tony dead, Natasha dead, Steve written off, the other Avengers still continuing to fight the bad guys. Any other film franchise would have called it quits after this: half the original Avengers roster gone, the threat building up for nearly a decade averted, almost all loose ends tied up. That the MCU has continued on afterwards can be viewed as a shallow cash grab that continues to drive out mid-budget films from the theaters, a genuine curiosity to explore as of yet underutilized characters and adapt some more of the rich history of Marvel Comics, or a bit of both. 

One common criticism of the MCU is that there are no proper endings. To some extent, that’s true: each entry acts more as an episode of TV than anything, with its own introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution, but then a little stinger at the end to ensure we tune in next week, and Endgame is no different. It wraps up the stories for many of its characters even as it tantalizes us with what’s to come—ooh, Thor is going with the Guardians, what a fun team that will be; Sam gets to be Captain America, how intriguing; Loki escapes with the Tesseract, what mischief could he get up to next! Everything is designed to keep people buying tickets, and with the cultural dominance of the MCU firmly solidified by now, in order to understand why everyone keeps saying, “I love you 3,000,” you’re going to have to fork over your money to the Mouse. 

Yet for all the griping I have done about this film, nothing can match the magic of that opening night. Endgame, for all its flaws, largely succeeds—and succeeds well—at what it sets out to achieve, and it has that excellent mix of ensemble humor and individual pathos that the Russo brothers balanced so well in their other MCU films and which other Marvel directors often struggle with. Its place in the cultural pantheon is deserved; even if you despise Marvel for ruining cinema, there’s no denying the influence Endgame has had, and that influence only is as big as it is because Endgame is, ultimately, a pretty solid flick which only drops a few balls out of the several hundred that it juggle

It’s hard to quantify, exactly, what impact Endgame made in pop culture. You could count Twitter hashtags or ticket sales (nearly $3 billion made worldwide), but that wouldn’t capture the conversations between acquaintances, the texts sent, the calls made to buzz about some moment from Endgame. For a brief moment, it seemed as if almost everyone in the world spoke the same language. The Red Wedding was a hill, Endgame Mount Everest. So even if Marvel and Disney are helping to strangle independent cinema, for a brief, shining moment, it felt like they had united the world.

Which, I suppose, is actually quite a frightening thought. But I digress.

There was quite a big hullabaloo several months after Endgame came out when Martin Scorsese equated Marvel movies to theme parks, and a bunch of fragile fans began insulting Scorsese’s body of work while trumpeting the MCU as a paragon of art. The thing is, Scorsese is right: Marvel is notoriously risk-averse and it almost always quashes a director’s individual voice—even when half the world was snapped away in Infinity War, you could rest assured that they would all come back in Endgame (lo and behold, they did), and even singular directors like Taika Waititi and Chloé Zhao can only fight so much against the formula. That popular cinema has increasingly become reboots and sequels, and originals are tossed onto streaming services with severely limited theatrical runs, is not entirely Marvel and Disney’s fault, yet they seem to be doing little to mitigate this, instead barreling on with their tried-and-tested formula; it’s always about expanding the universe, it’s always about branding the franchise, it’s all about making that capital, baby, even if they couch this in different terms.

But the reason Endgame was able to have such a strong hold on the collective consciousness wasn’t merely because consumers have all become slaves to the brand. Scorsese is right, but he makes one misstep: when talking about the films he loved as a child, he writes, “It was about characters—the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves,” as if to say that the MCU lacks characters other than stock ones, when in fact the biggest reason for the MCU’s success isn’t its action sequences or aliens, it’s the people at the heart of everything.

No, obviously the MCU is not filled with character-driven dramas, and even its attempts to do that, like WandaVision, have all ultimately devolved into typical Marvel fisticuffs. Yet if you want to see big action setpieces, there are plenty of places to slake your thirst—but no one is talking much about Transformers: The Last Knight years after its release, whereas Endgame remains an easy cultural touchstone. Yes, it helps that Marvel has continued to churn out films, but even after The Avengers in 2012, with only five prior films under its belt, it was clear that these popcorn flicks stayed in the mind a bit longer than the others at the multiplex, and that is all due to the careful character work laid down in the films. When Tony dies, after 11 years on our screens, after 11 years of watching him alternatingly preen and self-destruct, watching him contradict himself and mess up and triumph, it carries weight because we know him, we love him (or hate him, take your pick; I think it’s pretty clear where I fall). If Marvel had not spent so much time making these characters feel like people, albeit hot and superpowered people, the whole endeavor would have failed. People don’t shell out money to see these just because they want to watch people shoot bad guys, but because they care about the characters populating this universe. So, yes, Scorsese is right, but he misses the key point as to why people keep circling back to the MCU time and time again. I guess he’s still pretty alright.

It’s a bit odd to say that Marvel lacks ambition when its very basis was built on risk. Iron Man was a risk. The Avengers was a bigger risk. Only now, with Marvel firmly seated as top dog, can we begin to pick apart the endeavor, poke holes at the formula, and make fun of those with blind brand loyalty. That it’s morphed into what it is today is entirely unprecedented: a connected cinematic universe spanning galaxies, filled with dozens of main characters, stuffed with overlapping and overarching plots that pay off years down the road. Other franchises have tried to emulate Marvel’s success in creating a shared universe (the DCEU, the failed Dark Universe, even now Star Wars), yet none have succeeded in quite the same way because none took the time—and the associated risk—to build from the ground up. So while some claim Marvel has grown complacent, they only have the luxury to do so because they had such sheer guts in the beginning. 

So here we are. Endgame may not be the best MCU entry, but as a cultural and cinematic event, it remains unparalleled; that it doesn’t buckle under the weight of its plot (and runtime), that it gives each character strong emotional beats, that it succeeds in concluding a story that started with a movie about a nobody superhero directed by that guy from Swingers and starring an ex-convict, is nothing short of a miracle.

Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But it’s still one hell of an achievement.

Captain America vs Thanos Army [3840 x 1608] : r/marvelstudios

Groundwork and stray observations: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • That iconic “I am Iron Man” line in Endgame came from reshoots.
  • Two more Community alums pop up: Ken Jeong and Yvette Nicole Brown.
  • Okoye mentions an earthquake under the ocean. You know who’s rumored to be the villain of Black Panther 2? Namor the Sub-Mariner of Atlantis.
  • Howard Stark appears as he’s looking for Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), the scientist from The First Avenger who became a Hydra plant within S.H.I.E.L.D.
  • Peter Parker (Tom Holland) not wanting to activate instant kill mode with his suit was a running gag in Spider-Man: Homecoming, but here he actually does activate instant kill mode.
  • James D’Arcy reprising his role as Edwin Jarvis, the Stark family butler (for whom J.A.R.V.I.S. the artificial intelligence was named), from Agent Carter was a completely unexpected cameo that absolutely floored me. Considering that Jeph Loeb’s Marvel Television has been largely ignored by the MCU (though that may change come Hawkeye and Spider-Man: No Way Home…), to have a supporting character from one of the more minor shows cameo, if only for a brief second, felt wonderful. Jarvis rocks.
  • You know, not a whole lot of groundwork for this one, since it’s wrapping up so many things. Well, that’s a lie, it’s just that most of that groundwork hasn’t paid off yet: the Guardians will appear in Thor: Love and Thunder, which will presumably also deal with Valkyrie’s queenship; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 will deal with the search for 2014 Gamora; there’s going to be Captain America 4 with Sam (Anthony Mackie), etc. etc. We just haven’t seen all that happen.
  • Well, that’s a bit of a fib: Loki stealing the Tesseract did net him his own TV show.
  • The song that Steve and Peggy dance to (“It’s Been a Long, Long Time”) was playing in Steve’s apartment in Winter Soldier when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) paid him a visit.
  • The Amazon series The Boys did a very excellent parody (or two) of the “he’s got help”/A-Force team-up scene from Endgame, but, honestly, it’s not that bad. I, for one, felt pretty pumped about it in the theater, even if it is a bit ham-fisted. Far, far more egregious things have happened then a bunch of women superheroes teaming up together for lip service. It was clumsy, but there are worse things—like, if you want to take a political issue with Marvel, talk about its weird relationship with the military-industrial complex, or American exceptionalism, or the damage it’s doing to cinema as a whole. This one scene is not the biggest issue at stake here. (Also, is it any worse than Marvel trumpeting the fact that Endgame has the MCU’s first gay character and for that to turn out to be Joe Russo making a cameo?)
  • It was very nice that the MCU remembered Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins) from Iron Man 3. Would be cool to see him again; after all, he’s “connected.” Ironheart or Armor Wars, maybe? The inevitable Young Avengers movie or show? Could be fun.
  • Not to diss Kathryn Newton again (…and again), but Emma Fuhrmann, who has two brief scenes in Endgame as an older Cassie Lang, Scott’s daughter, absolutely kills what little time she has. It’s very unfair she was passed over for someone with more star power.
  • In case anyone was peeved (as I was) at this Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) from Agent Carter the TV show erasure, never fear: he gets his own happy ending with Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet) in the future, in space, presumably working for S.W.O.R.D., except Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. probably wasn’t legally allowed to say that. But, regardless, at least the ABC show universe doesn’t forget about their loose ends (well, most of the time).

Anna’s Favorite Scene: I mean. Come on. It’s the portal scene. It’s “Avengers, assemble.” Come. On. I have never felt that exhilarated watching a movie in my life. (“It’s a baby.” “It’s Scott!” “As a baby.” “He’ll grow!” never fails to tickle me, however.)

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Avengers: Infinity War, 3. Captain America: Civil War, 4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 5. Thor: Ragnarok, 6. Avengers: Endgame, 7. Guardians of the Galaxy, 8. The Avengers, 9. Spider-Man: Homecoming, 10. Captain America: The First Avenger, 11. Iron Man 3, 12. Iron Man, 13. Black Panther, 14. Ant-Man and the Wasp, 15. Doctor Strange, 16. Ant-Man, 17. Thor, 18. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 19. Captain Marvel, 20. Thor: The Dark World, 21. Iron Man 2, 22. The Incredible Hulk

Avengers: Endgame Trailer

Avengers: Endgame is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Thor: Ragnarok

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. And now, for something completely different (again).

80/100

The Thor movies, historically, have been weaker entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: the first, while very near and dear to my heart, was uneven and showed the MCU’s growing pains, though it certainly had standout moments and performances; the second is widely regarded as one of the worst movies in the MCU. (For what it’s worth, director Alan Taylor doesn’t like it either, saying, “The Marvel experience was particularly wrenching because I was sort of given absolute freedom while we were shooting, and then in post it turned into a different movie,” which seems to be a common refrain among Creative Committee-era Marvel.) Even Chris Hemsworth was feeling burnt out, worried that his character was becoming static and uninteresting. Things were looking, if not dire—by this point, it would take a hell of a lot for any MCU movie to be in truly dire straits—then at least unexciting.

The solution, as it turned out, was to hire a New Zealand director best known for his wacky vampire mockumentary (yes, that’s correct) What We Do in the Shadows, which had a budget of about $1.6 million. Taika Waititi came in with a sizzle reel featuring Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” and suddenly found himself at the helm of a $180 million movie, where he gave the Thor franchise a much-needed makeover and suddenly found himself a bonafide celebrity in the process. Thor: Ragnarok serves as a soft reboot of the franchise, poking fun at its over-dramatic past exploits, introducing new characters for future stories, and injecting an enormous of humor and color into one of the more dour MCU series—to say that Waititi revived Thor both as a character and as a series sounds dramatic but would be entirely correct.

The tone shift becomes apparent from the first moment Thor opens his mouth. Trapped in a cage above a floor of lava, he says, “Now, I know what you’re thinking. Oh no! Thor’s in a cage. How did this happen?” This is a far cry from the exposition-heavy openings of Thor and Thor: The Dark World, which utilized ponderous flashbacks to explain their MacGuffins; instead, we are greeted with Thor talking to a skeleton and offhandedly mumbling about “Infinity Stone things.” No more flowery language, no more self-serious talk of duty and kingship: Waititi wisely lets Hemsworth play to his considerable comedic strengths, and the result is a movie that never lets up on the gas pedal of humor while leaning heavily into Waititi’s off-kilter Kiwi sensibilities. 

And so after Thor gets out of that cage and defeats fire giant Surtur (Clancy Brown), and after he receives ominous warnings about the impending doom of his home from Ragnarok, the apocalypse in Norse mythology, Thor arrives back on Asgard to chat with his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), whose mannerisms—and the fact that he’s staging a rather melodramatic play singing Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) praises—tip off Thor to the fact that this isn’t his father but is, in fact, his adopted brother, who faked his death in The Dark World.

How fitting that Loki, who all his life longed for affection and acceptance he never got, would spend his time as king of Asgard running a PR campaign to make himself look like a hero, all so he can bask in adulation from the masses. As Tony Stark says in The Avengers, “And Loki, he’s a full-tilt diva, right? He wants flowers, he wants parades. He wants a monument built to the skies with his name.” Or, as Mobius puts more succinctly in Loki, “What an incredible seismic narcissist!”

If Thor’s confrontation with Surtur already toed the line of absurdity, we’ve now merrily leaped to the other side: Loki-as-Odin merrily eating grapes as he watches his own death, cameos from Luke Hemsworth, Sam Neill, and Matt Damon as actors in the play, and, as Matt Damon-as-Loki dies, a solemn choir singing Brian Tyler’s score that played as in Thor: The Dark World as the real Loki “died.” It’s fantastically different from anything that came before in Ragnarok’s predecessors: this is not your average Thor movie, and it’s much better for it.

Thor reveals Loki’s trickery, and the two go off to track down Odin with a little help from a certain Sorcerer Supreme (Benedict Cumberbatch in a fun and quick cameo). Odin has been laying low in Norway, his age catching up to him. Atop a stark cliffside, Odin blindsides his sons by revealing that they have a sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), whom he locked away when she got too bloodthirsty, and then after this revelation, Odin promptly perishes.

It’s a small, intimate scene with beautiful visuals and strong performances, and it’s a good sendoff for Odin as he reminds us that he can have moments of kindness with his sons while also being the shittiest father in the MCU. He includes Loki when he says, “My sons,” which is nice considering that the last time he saw Loki he said, “Your birthright was to die,” but in the same breath divulges that he imprisoned his firstborn and never told his other children. Where the other Thor movies typically tried to pretend that Odin was a good father and a good king, Waititi mostly strips the veneer off him, laying his flaws on thick (though still never quite interrogating them enough).

So Odin dies, but his legacy does not: Hela immediately arrives in all her glory—and there’s a lot of it. Blanchett looks absolutely fabulous, and she chews on scenery with relish; there’s little complexity driving Hela, who simply wants to rule through bloodshed, but Blanchett has such a blast in the role (and, seriously, she looks amazing) that she vaults Hela up into the upper echelon of Marvel villains. If you squint, you can see a commentary on colonization—Waititi himself is half Maōri as well as the MCU’s first non-white director—in Odin and Hela’s conquest of the realms and the subsequent burial of Odin’s sins, and the way Odin and Asgard let the problems rot and fester so they are unprepared when they rears their ugly heads, but as has happened before, audience members are left with only breadcrumbs to form commentary from, though these breadcrumbs are pretty tasty. 

Hela handily destroys Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer, which sends both Loki and Thor into a tailspin; Loki, panicking, calls for the Bifrost to take them back, but Hela grabs ahold and tosses both Loki and Thor out of the Bifrost while she gets taken to Asgard. From there, the story becomes bifurcated: we cut between Loki and Thor navigating the colorful world of Sakaar and Hela beginning her reign of terror on Asgard. 

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

While in both Thor and The Dark World the scenes on Asgard stood a step or two above the scenes set elsewhere, here it’s the opposite. The time spent on Asgard with Hela is certainly still enjoyable due to both Blanchett and the addition of Waititi’s fellow Kiwi Karl Urban as Skurge, a lackey who gets roped into Hela’s bloodthirst rather unwillingly. It’s just that there’s not much to do other than reveal once again that Odin was terrible and summarily dispense with the Warriors Three (Zachary Levi, Ray Stevenson, and Tadanobu Asano)—Sif (Jaimie Alexander), it seems, was too busy filming Blindspot to attend the reunion. 

It’s not exactly a heartbreaking moment, as the Warriors Three had precious little screen time before (though Levi certainly hammed up his two minutes in The Dark World), and Hela dispatching them so easily establishes not only her threat but also Waititi’s willingness to turn the Thor world on its head. This disregard for the past is refreshing, and in some cases needed for this particular franchise, but the deaths of three of Thor’s closest friends perhaps should carry a bit more weight. Levi’s Fandral and Stevenson’s Volstagg barely get a word in edgewise before getting stabbed, and Asano’s Hogun fares only a little better before Hela promptly skewers him; Thor, when he does return to Asgard, does not acknowledge any of this, and so the inclusion of the Warriors Three simply to get killed in a very nonchalant manner sits a tad uncomfortably. To quote a different Disney franchise, “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to,” but maybe not this quickly.

While Hela has been killing his friends, Thor has been having a hell of a day on Sakaar. First, a space wormhole deposits him in a pile of interdimensional trash. Next, an ex-Asgardian Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) shows up and captures him with zero regard for his social standing. Then, he is ushered to the being known as the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) as an instrumental, hellish version of “Pure Imagination” plays in the background. He learns that he has been dumped on a planet known as Sakaar, where the Grandmaster keeps everyone entertained by having slaves (though he prefers the term “prisoners with jobs”) fight each other to the death, à la panem et circenses; Thor, full of bluster and looking extremely ripped, has the honor to become the Grandmaster’s next pet fighter. Also, Loki has been there for weeks and has already ingratiated himself with the Grandmaster, being the sly trickster that he is, and he declines to assist Thor.

It’s a lot to take in, so Thor is understandably euphoric when he realizes that the ominous “champion” the Grandmaster has been praising and whom he has to fight is none other than the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). But Thor’s “friend from work” has no interest in playing nice, it seems, even smashing Thor up the way he did Loki in The Avengers (“Yes! That’s how it feels!” Loki holleres), though Thor puts up enough of a fight that the Grandmaster has to interfere lest his precious champion lose and become unpopular.

This Sakaar storyline, adapted from the Planet Hulk comics, is immense fun. It’s got Jeff Goldblum melting people with sticks and improvising jazz on an alien piano—what more could you possibly want? It also adds a dash of bright color into the MCU, and while its visuals don’t quite match Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, it’s a refreshing change of pace and shows the dividends that pay when Marvel plays outside its typical sandbox. Waititi’s voice can be heard loud and clear throughout Ragnarok (and not just because he does the voice and motion capture for Thor’s fellow gladiator Korg) in a way that’s hard to imagine happening while the Creative Committee was still around. Large chunks of the movie were improvised, allowing the actors’ natural humor to shine, and directorial freedom was nearly absolute. Oh, it’s definitely a Marvel movie with all the requisite fights and whatnot, but it’s definitely a Taika Waititi movie, too.

The Thor/Hulk buddy comedy that unfurls after their fight is a happy marriage of two characters who have had precious little previous screentime together despite sharing two Avengers movies. Thor tries to badger and pester Hulk into turning back into Bruce Banner, but Hulk, finally having found a group of people that accept and even adore him (as opposed to Earth’s frosty reception after he destroyed Johannesburg in Avengers: Age of Ultron), resists. Hemsworth and Ruffalo spit childish insults at each other with glee, and though the dynamic shifts when Hulk inevitably turns back into Bruce Banner after seeing a clip of Black Widow, it only increases in fun as Ruffalo gazes wild-eyed around at the chaos and stress of Sakaar, marveling at their love for his alter ego.

Thor and Bruce set off to go back to Asgard, and on the way, run into Valkyrie, who’s had a change of heart. She had left Asgard after Hela, years and years ago, slaughtered all her fellow Valkyries; disillusioned with Asgard and lamenting the loss of everyone she loved, this Valkyrie retreated to Sakaar to drink her remaining days away. But, as she says, “I don’t want to forget. I can’t turn away anymore. So, if I’m going to die, well… it may as well be driving my sword through the heart of that murderous hag.” Thompson is a fantastic addition to the MCU, and she and Hemsworth have great chemistry, though thankfully not of the romantic kind. (There is a deleted scene somewhere that reveals Valkyrie to be bisexual, as she is in the comics, and it adds another reason for Valkyrie to hate Hela so vehemently, but it was cut for, uh… reasons, I guess. Sure.)

The unlikely trio dub themselves the Revengers, snag and then lose a certain trickster god after another betrayal, start a revolution in the gladiator pits, steal the Grandmaster’s orgy ship, and head back to Asgard through the Devil’s Anus to stop Hela (imagine saying that sentence back in Phase One!). The confrontation between Hela and Thor in the throne room gets the film tantalizing close to truly dissecting Odin’s faults—“It would seem our father’s solution to every problem was to cover it up,” Hela comments—before brother and sister, the warring sides of Odin’s legacy, duke it out and leave conversation by the wayside.

Hela easily lays waste to Thor, blinding him in his right eye like his father before him, and things seem to be looking very dire for our seductive Lord of Thunder and his fellow Asgardians, who are trapped between Hela’s forces. Luckily for them, Loki, in his fully horned glory, reappears with a ship that dwarfs the Grandmaster’s, proclaiming, “Your savior is here!” It’s a move that redeems Loki while never letting him become a good guy: he’s still devious and narcissistic, but he cares for his brother and he cares for his people at the end of the day. (Of course, the completion of his redemption arc makes him excellent cannon fodder for Avengers: Infinity War.)

“What were you the god of again?” she sneers as her knives pin Thor to a balcony railing. As Thor’s bravado fades, his mind transports him back to Norway, where Odin waits. Falling to his knees, for perhaps the first time in his life Chris Hemsworth looks small(ish). He feels hopeless without Mjolnir and without Odin, but then his father asks him, “Are you Thor, god of hammers?”

What follows is just so damn satisfying. “What were you the god of again?” Well, Hela finds out, and quickly too, as Thor lets loose. Fireworks go off, Hulk fights a giant wolf, Loki flips his helmet in a cool way, and Thor proceeds to absolutely wreck Hela’s minions as Led Zeppelin plays in the background. Other MCU movies play up Thor’s physical strength, and so does Waititi, but he also allows his titular character to run wild with the true power of a god, and hot damn does it feel good. 

This is Thor as we have never seen him: battered and bloody, sans an eyeball, but at the height of his power with lightning crackling all around him, no hammer necessary. Finally, finally, Thor stands on his own two feet as a dynamic character in his own right, stepping out of the shadow cast by his charismatic, scene-stealing brother. It took six years to get there, but what a hell of a payoff.

But his newfound power still isn’t enough to defeat Hela, and Thor realizes that he has to destroy Asgard in order to destroy her, bringing about the Ragnarok he was trying so desperately to avoid. But, as he says, “Asgard is not a place. It’s a people,” and so Loki dashes to Odin’s vault to free Surtur (and steals an Infinity Stone in the process), all the remaining Asgardians are loaded onto a ship, and we all watch as Surtur and Hela obliterate Thor’s home and all its riches, technology, and history. But perhaps, given its bloodied history, it’s “easier to let it burn,” as Loki says earlier in the film. The past caught up, Asgard had to reckon with it, and in this reckoning it gets reborn looking very different, but now free of its past sins.

And then… Korg makes a joke about it, and so we arrive at the crux of the problem with Ragnarok, and why it doesn’t crack my top three: it’s too funny. “Wait,” I hear you clarmoing, “Anna, what’s the problem with that?” The jokes almost always land, after all, and they make Ragnarok one of the most memorable MCU entries with such lines as the improvised, “There was one time my brother transformed himself into a snake, because he knows how much I like snakes, and so I picked the snake up to admire it, but then he turned back and went, ‘Blergh! It’s me!’ And then he stabbed me. We were eight, at the time.” That is an absolute classic.

The problem, however, is that the abundance of jokes hampers the film’s burgeoning commentary on colonization and legacy because it all becomes couched in humor, which can certainly be effective at conveying messages but needs space in order to be so, and Ragnarok has precious little of that. When Waititi goes for the more serious moments, he can land them—both scenes with Odin on the cliffside, Loki saying, “I’m here” at the very end of the film—but the balance here skews far more towards humor, undercutting the emotional impact of, say, your home world getting destroyed by your secret imperialist sister. Waititi can certainly balance comedy with drama, and would go on to take home an Oscar for exactly that skill in Jojo Rabbit, but here the balance is off. There is no time to process anything: the Warriors Three get killed within seconds, a pedestrian reveals that Jane broke up with Thor in an offhand line. None of the mayhem promised by the revelation in The Dark World that Loki is now posing as Odin happens, and instead that and most of his deep-seated family issues get turned into jokes. Asgard gets destroyed, joke. Thor finally takes the throne as his theme from the first Thor movie swells, joke. 

As Marvel movie sins go, this is far from the worst one, and it’s no small feat to go from New Zealand indie movies to successfully revamping the image of one of the world’s most famous superheroes. But just a little more breathing room, just a little more time to get messier with the characters and give the emotional beats all the weight they deserve, would have been nice.

Groundwork and stray observations: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • Not much groundwork, since the whole point of Ragnarok is to blow up the Thor franchise and start over. The mid-credits scene does nicely set the stage for Infinity War’s opening, though. 
  • Natalie Portman does not appear in this film, presumably because her experience during The Dark World left a bad taste in her mouth, but Waititi’s remodeling of the franchise lured her back in for Thor: Love and Thunder, where she’ll be playing Thor, but also Jane. Jane gets cancer, but she can wield Mjolnir and get superpowers, but then that accelerates her cancer… it gets a bit weird in the comics, but it will be nice to have Portman back and not simply relegated to “love interest.”
  • I didn’t mention Heimdall (Idris Elba) in the bulk of the piece, but it’s very nice to see him get to do something other than ominously judge from afar. Elba is great.
  • When Thor sees Odin in a vision towards the end of the movie, Odin says, “Asgard is not a place. Never was. This could be Asgard.” The “this means Norway, a place which will in fact become Asgard come Avengers: Endgame, with Tønsberg (seen in both Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger) becoming New Asgard.
  • A statue of Beta Ray Bill’s head is on the outside of a building in Sakaar; when Christian Bale was cast for Thor: Love and Thunder, there was a lot of speculation he would play Beta Ray Bill, who has wielded both Mjolnir and Stormbreaker, the axe Peter Dinklage makes for Thor in Infinity War. Bale will instead be playing Gorr the God Butcher.
  • I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the only good thing to come out of Bruce and Natasha’s “relationship” in Age of Ultron is Thor attempting to calm down Hulk in this film by saying, “Sun’s getting real low.”
  • Fun fact for any What We Do in the Shadows fans out there: Carlo van de Roer, who played absolute legend Stu in the movie, helped create the lighting rig that makes this Valkyrie scene so cool.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: I mean… come on, it’s Thor absolutely wrecking shit while “Immigrant Song” plays. Can’t beat that. 

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Captain America: Civil War, 3. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 4. Thor: Ragnarok, 5. Guardians of the Galaxy, 6. The Avengers, 7. Spider-Man: Homecoming, 8. Captain America: The First Avenger, 9. Iron Man 3, 10. Iron Man, 11. Doctor Strange, 12. Ant-Man, 13. Thor, 14. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 15. Thor: The Dark World, 16. Iron Man 2, 17. The Incredible Hulk

Thor: Ragnarok Trailer

Thor: Ragnarok is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Guardians of the Galaxy

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. And now, for something completely different.

80/100

There’s a scene from the beginning of Guardians of the Galaxy where Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill introduces himself as “Star-Lord” with all the seriousness and self-importance in the world, and he is promptly met with a violent, “Who?delivered courtesy of Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou).

That about sums up the reaction that many confused Marvel fans had when the first trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy was revealed, introducing us to an entirely new team comprised of that goofy dude from Parks and Recreation, a green lady named Gamora (Zoe Saldana), former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista playing someone called Drax the Destroyer, an honest-to-god raccoon (Bradley Cooper) named after a Beatles song, and a talking tree dubbed Groot (Vin Diesel). Who?

No one knew who these guys were. Even Iron Man, certainly far from the most famous of Marvel superheroes, had some name recognition, and Captain America, Hulk, and Thor were all Marvel staples. The Guardians of the Galaxy, though, not so much. This was Marvel’s first nonsequel since Captain America: The First Avenger? Marvel’s cultural importance had certainly grown, and coming off the heels of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it was coasting on public goodwill, but here was its first true post-Avengers test: introduce a bunch of new characters that no one knows anything about and hope the film is good enough to strengthen brand loyalty rather than frighten casual fans away. It was risky: even the Thor films had elements of familiarity, setting much of the story on Earth and making some of our denizens main characters, but this was a movie set almost entirely in space about a bunch of nobodies directed by a guy who cut his teeth in horror-comedies. Even with the support of the Marvel brand behind them, Guardians’ success was far from assured; in fact, it was such a bizarre premise that Amanda Seyfried turned down the role of Gamora due to concerns over the talking raccoon and his tree buddy, thinking the movie might bomb. Would this be the first real MCU flop?

Luckily for Marvel, James Gunn ended up making one of its strongest films to date; it was a completely different tone from The Winter Soldier, which had arrived several months prior, but, like that movie, Guardians proved that Marvel wasn’t afraid to adapt and reinvent their wheel (not the wheel, just their wheel—at the end of the day, it’s still a Marvel film first and foremost) to stay fresh in the eyes of their fans. Winter Soldier went gritty, Guardians went goofy, and it paid off in spades.

Guardians’ opening scenes perfectly set the stage for that triumph, exhibiting the blend of heart and humor that courses through the film: we start with a young Peter Quill (here played by Wyatt Oleff) running away from a hospital after his cancer-ridden mother (Laura Haddock) dies. It’s a shocking opening, setting a much more somber mood than Marvel goes for and maybe even eliciting a few tears, despite the brevity of the scene. 26 years and an alien abduction later, an adult Quill goes to investigate an abandoned planet, the rain pelting down around him as he scopes out the harsh landscape.

And then, amidst this gloom and doom, something marvelous (ha) happens: Peter starts up his Walkman, “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone starts to sound, and our hero begins to dance his way through these dank, vermin-filled ruins. In an instant, the movie has transformed; any tears that might have gathered vanish, replaced instead by a broad grin. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition, one that perfectly establishes the tone of the movie and introduces us to our hapless hero. Though he won’t speak for another two minutes or so, it’s already hard as hell not to like Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill. 

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

Quill isn’t our only hero, though. When he brings a mysterious orb to sell through a broker, he attracts the attention of some nefarious people, including Quill’s pseudo-foster father Yondu (Michael Rooker), who is tempted to let his Ravagers eat Quill as payback for stealing the orb; Gamora, who happens to be the adopted daughter of Thanos (Josh Brolin, in his first MCU appearance), and through him works for Kree warlord Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace); Rocket Raccoon, a raccoon bounty hunter with a penchant for stealing prosthetics; and Groot, a talking tree who only ever says, “I am Groot.” The latter three all try to hunt down Quill—Gamora by herself and Rocket with Groot—but end up being apprehended by the Nova Corps, the planet Xandar’s police force. 

(Specifically, they are apprehended by John C. Reilly as Rhomann Dey, whose boss, Nova Prime, is played by Glenn Close. The door is open for a return from those two, provided they didn’t get annihilated when Thanos destroyed Xandar before Infinity War; Reilly and Close are two of the most well-known and well-regarded actors the MCU has collected, and they’re relegated to glorified cameos here. It’s actually kind of funny, watching these A-listers take a backseat to a sitcom actor.)

Our ragtag bunch get sent to the Kyln, a galactic prison, where they encounter Drax. Drax is hell-bent on destroying Ronan, who killed Drax’s entire family; this means destroying Gamora, too, until she reveals that she intends to give the orb not to Ronan, who will use it to unleash destruction on Xandar, but to the Collector, Taneleer Tivan (Benicio del Toro), and wants to use the money she will get to flee from her father and the destruction he plans to sow. The five prisoners then stage a delightfully clever prison break, retrieve the orb, and set about getting the reward.

As it turns out, that orb is actually the Power Stones, one of six Infinity Stones (which, of course, have no plot relevance whatsoever), and after it blows up the Collector’s collection and ends up in Ronan’s hands, our heroes reluctantly go off to stop Ronan and save the galaxy. (“What has the galaxy ever done for you? Why would you want to save it?” Rocket demands, unwilling to go suicidal to defeat Ronan. “Because I’m one of the idiots who lives in it!” Quill retorts.)

The plot proceeds largely as expected. There’s a big bad guy, they have to defeat him, blah blah blah. Ronan himself is a fairly underwhelming villain, motivated only by vengeance and bloodshed, though Lee Pace clearly had a good time hamming it up in increasingly absurd ways (also, I believe his is the only nude butt we have seen in the MCU). Add Pace to the list of underutilized actors who play bland villains in Marvel films, I guess. 

Yet, despite the rote plot, Guardians soars. Its humor consistently lands, its characters exude charm. It, like Winter Soldier, is a breath of fresh air in the MCU, but it, unlike the very serious Winter Soldier, approaches its strange source material with a sense of glee. Its heroes are reluctant, they’re selfish, and they are definitely, definitely weirder than any of the other Marvel heroes we’ve seen before (even the guy who flies around with a hammer), and James Gunn uses these oddballs to wring out some of the best comedy of the MCU. (If this sounds eerily similar to James Gunn’s 2021 The Suicide Squad, well, you’d be right. The guy likes his found families full of mean misfits.)

Of course, it’s hard to mention the success of Guardians without pointing to its soundtrack. From “Come and Get Your Love” to “Cherry Bomb” to “O-o-h Child” (especially to “O-o-h Child” and the corresponding dance-off), each song injects Guardians with a healthy dose of joy or sentimentality. Not only are the songs perfectly timed, they have plot relevance, too—while not always quite diegetic, each needle drop comes from a mixtape Quill’s mother had given to him, giving them an extra emotional resonance. Awesome Mix Vol. 1 is full of so many earworms that it reached the top of the Billboard 200 chart, the first time a soundtrack consisting only of previously released songs had secured the number one spot, and it even became certified platinum. Baby Groot dancing to “I Want You Back” took the Internet by storm, and suddenly decades-old songs were back in the collective consciousness; the soundtrack indelibly shaped the movie, and while moviegoers fondly think back on AC/DC in the Iron Man films, or recall the excellent use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” in Thor: Ragnarok, Awesome Mix Vol. 1 was a runaway success on an entirely different level, and it helped Guardians be one, too.

Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t a perfect film: its villain is nothing to write home about, and some performers (namely Zoe Saldana as Gamora and especially Karen Gillan as Nebula) take until Vol. 2 to settle into their (prosthetic, colorful) skin, but it’s so fun to watch that these criticisms become mere quibbles. It’s not just fun and games though—Guardians also sticks the landing on the more emotional beats, such as Groot’s tear-jerking (at least for this writer) sacrifice, and the moment when Peter finally takes his mother’s hand. 

Gunn has a knack for finding the heart under the rough surface; when he was (stupidly) fired for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 for decades old (but admittedly tasteless) joke tweets about rape and pedophilia (unearthed only after Pizzagate conspiracist Mike Cernovich sicced his followers on Gunn after Gunn took a dig at him), Gunn’s brother Sean (who plays Kraglin and provides the motion capture for Rocket) took to Instagram and said, “I’ve heard my brother say many times that when Quill rallies the team with ‘this is our chance to give a shit’—to care—that it’s the pep talk he himself needed to hear. It’s part of what made working on the Guardians movies such a rewarding experience for the cast. We managed to find ourselves involved in a big-budget superhero movie that was, at its core, deeply personal. That’s a gift. And that’s why it’s good… So I guess my hope is that fans continue to watch and appreciate the Guardians movies, not despite the fact that the filmmaker used to be kind of a jackass, but because of it. They are, after all, movies about discovering your best self. Working on those movies made my brother a better person, and they made me one too.”

Gunn was eventually rehired after he apologized and the cast rallied around him (though not before he was scooped up by DC to helm The Suicide Squad), but his brother’s post exhibits why Guardians was so successful. It’s superheroes flying around in space and blowing stuff up, sure, but there’s more to it than that: it’s a self-admitted “bunch of jackasses,” fallible and frustrating, finding family and above all working towards redemption, as Gunn did—and as we all do at some point or another. 

It’s really too bad that Marvel follows up these two back-to-back triumphs with… well. You know. (Or if you don’t, you’ll find out.)

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • This is probably the biggest info dump we get about Infinity Stones (and the longest appearance of Thanos!) until Avengers: Infinity War.
  • Yondu was right: Quill’s father is a jackass, as we will find out in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
  • When Rocket is being processed at the Kyln, “Lylla” is listed as one of his two associates (the other being Groot). In the comics, Lylla is Rocket’s otter soulmate, and seeing as Vol. 3 will have a heavy focus on Rocket, there have been rumors flying about her presence in the film.
  • Ronan and Korath both appear in Captain Marvel, which was a fun way to bring back two talented actors who didn’t get enough to do in this film. They don’t get enough to do in Captain Marvel, either, but it was a nice try.
  • There are a bunch of things in the Collector’s collection, including Howard the Duck (Seth Green), Cosmo the Spacedog, a Chitauri (one of the aliens from The Avengers), and a Dark Elf (from Thor: The Dark World).
  • Hey, you know, those Kree guys show up in Agents of S.H.I.E.LD.! Bet you thought I couldn’t find a way to connect it this time around, but I did.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: I mean, it’s gotta be “We are Groot,” right? That or the exquisite opening ten or so minutes. (Drax calling Gamora “this green whore” gets third place.)

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Guardians of the Galaxy, 3. The Avengers, 4. Captain America: The First Avenger, 5. Iron Man 3, 6. Iron Man, 7. Thor, 8. Thor: The Dark World, 9. Iron Man 2, 10. The Incredible Hulk

Guardians of the Galaxy Trailer

Guardians of the Galaxy is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Captain America: The Winter Soldier has a lot of favorite scenes, so buckle up.

85/100

Back in 2011, the Community episodes “A Fistful of Paintballs” and “For a Few Paintballs More” aired, both directed by Joe Russo. Joe and his brother, Anthony, both served as executive producers on the show, and directed many of its more iconic episodes, building on their experience with fellow sitcom classic Arrested Development. In this particular doubleheader, the denizens of Greendale Community College get pitted against each other in a paintball war; the episodes expertly mimic Spaghetti Westerns and Star Wars to create a parody so precise it could almost pass off as the real thing, save for Community’s self-aware brand of humor.

Well, as it turned out, Marvel bigwig Kevin Feige greatly enjoyed these episodes of Community, so much so that he reached out to the Russo brothers to ask about directing a Marvel gig. The gig turned out to be Captain America: The Winter Soldier, an entry widely regarded as among the MCU’s best (if not the best) and one whose success ensured that the Russo brothers would be at the helm for much of the Infinity Saga, concluding their tenure at Marvel with Avengers: Endgame. And to think, all of that started with a couple of episodes about a community college dousing each other with paint.

(The Russos will even bring back Community alums Danny Pudi, Jim Rash, and Yvette Nicole Brown to cameo in their Marvel films, as well as the infamous Bluth stair-car from Arrested Development. As it turns out, Community and Rick and Morty creator Dan Harmon has nurtured quite a few future Marvel employees on his shows, most notably Jessica Gao, the She-Hulk showrunner; Jeff Loveness, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania writer; and Michael Waldron, Loki showrunner and writer, who also wrote the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and whatever Star Wars thing Kevin Feige is doing—Waldron in particular will be a very big deal for the MCU in the upcoming years. On a more unrelated note, Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins worked on Arrested Development alongside the Russos, and is the director of the infamous “Mayonegg” scene. What humble beginnings all these folks had.)

Feige chose well: the Russo brothers took their action movie parody experience from Community and applied it seriously, crafting not only the best Marvel film to date but a solid spy thriller flick in its own right. The team of the Russo brothers with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (writers of Captain America: The First Avenger and, uh, Thor: The Dark World, unfortunately) would go on to shape the biggest moments in the MCU, but it all starts here.

Where I lamented Steve’s characterization in my review of The Avengers, Markus and McFeely smoothly course-correct; the banter and humor doesn’t just come from old man jokes at Steve’s expense, but allows Chris Evans to flex some subtle comedy chops. In The Avengers (and Avengers: Age of Ultron), Steve becomes a bit of a caricature—a hyper-patriotic goody two-shoes with a stick up his ass and his gaze constantly turning to the past—even down to his costuming choices, and it’s a lazy choice to mine for easy comedy. Here, he’s back to his old (no pun intended) self, breaking rules and creating the witty comments himself, rather than being the oblivious subject of them. 

As Markus himself put it: “We also knew what we didn’t want to do, which was the grandpa story of ‘Oh my god, I’m in the future! What are these buttons? What do they do?’ It’s very tempting to go ‘Oh, this rock and roll…’ But he’s the most adaptive man on the planet. His brain’s been juiced, so he’s not going to be baffled for very long by your iPhone, so you have all those ideas first and then you’re like ‘Those are stupid.’”

At one point, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) says, “You must miss the good old days.” 

“Well, things aren’t so bad,” Steve replies. “Food’s a lot better—we used to boil everything. No polio is good. Internet, so helpful. I’ve been reading that a lot trying to catch up.” Steve of The Avengers might have agreed with Sam, but his answer here is much more in character.

This isn’t to say that Steve doesn’t think about his past; in fact, the movie is chock-full of ghosts, living or dead, coming back to haunt Steve. He prowls his own exhibit at the Smithsonian just to get a glimpse of the people he’s lost, most noticeably his best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) and lost love Peggy (Hayley Atwell), and one particularly gut-wrenching scene involves Steve visiting a very old Peggy, now bed- and dementia-ridden. He’s adapted easily to the world around him, but he’s done so alone.

Still, he’s managed to carve a life for himself by working for S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), jumping out of planes without a parachute and demonstrating some exhilarating hand-to-hand combat. He’s assisted by Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), her cynical outlook bounces off Steve nicely, as he remains an optimist at heart; her presence also lets the MCU feel more lived-in—it doesn’t always require an Avengers movie to have our heroes cross paths. 

However, Steve begins to grow uneasy with S.H.I.E.L.D. and especially Fury, whose compartmentalization rubs Steve the wrong way; Project Insight, in particular, makes Steve properly angry. The project involves three helicarriers that would patrol the skies and eliminate threats before they occurred, à la Minority Report (but with computers as the Precogs), in order to avoid another Avengers-type cataclysm. While Fury, always the pragmatist, expresses pride in the project, Steve points out, “This isn’t freedom. This is fear.” Steve chafed when the government prohibited him from helping the war effort in the 1940s, and here he chafes again at the terrible oversight the helicarriers would give S.H.I.E.L.D., refusing to compartmentalize and become like Fury. 

There’s no particular political ideology behind Steve’s constant balking at governmental orders (the closest Marvel has gotten to endorsing any particular political leaning is The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and even that is vague enough to avoid ruffling most feathers); rather, there is simply a refusal to bend before authorities abusing their power, though things are much grayer here than in Cap’s first outing. The First Avenger preyed on sentimentality and nostalgia for the clear-cut morals of World War II, whereas Winter Soldier complicates things a bit by throwing Steve into a world where even the good guys aren’t so good, drawing on the spy thrillers of the 1970s such as The Parallax View and Marathon Man.

Alas, just as Fury begins to feel suspicious about the organization he runs, he gets knocked out of commission by the mysterious Winter Soldier. (Or “Wiener Soldier,” if you’re Sebastian Stan.) Steve and Natasha find themselves on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D., armed only with their wits, Steve’s shield, and a hard drive Fury gave to Steve before he got shot. The hard drive directs them to Camp Lehigh, the training camp Steve attended in The First Avenger, and so the two make their way there, Evans and Johansson’s long-standing friendship lending authenticity to their characters’ hesitant allyship.

Steve and Natasha’s friendship never attempts to be anything more, a refreshing change of pace when Nat has been shunted around seemingly at random between men. Had they been written to be romantic, it would have been believable (certainly more so than the Natasha/Bruce misfire in Avengers: Age of Ultron); their friendship, however, is even better, especially in a universe where any attractive man and woman who glance at each other seemingly must go to bone town.

Speaking of bone town, Winter Soldier provides our first glimpse of Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), aka Agent 13. Sharon, the grand-niece of Peggy, is Steve’s main love interest in the comics and a formidable character in her own right, at various points joining different Avengers teams and becoming director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Peggy in the comics stays relegated to the 1940s, an afterthought next to Sharon. However, in the MCU, Sharon is the afterthought—much more on this later, but suffice to say most of this film could be summarized with nary a mention of Sharon Carter, and that is quite a damn shame.

Winter Soldier serves as a decent enough introduction for her, despite her lack of screen time; even with the brief appearances here, had she been given a bigger role in Captain America: Civil War, she might have even let fans forget about Peggy. However, Sharon’s treatment in the MCU leaves a hell of a lot to be desired, and it starts in Winter Soldier, even though easy fixes are staring Markus and McFeely in the face: put Sharon in the Natasha role, as she is another spy whose experience could help Steve on the run; put Sharon in the Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) role as Nick Fury’s right-hand woman; have her join Steve and Natasha on the run; have her be a part of Fury’s secret cabal who knows he’s in hiding after the attempt on his life. (Kevin Feige, if you’re reading this, please hire me. I can fix your problems with female characters.) Any of the above would have given Sharon a) more screen time with Steve (with whom she shares a grand total of three scenes) and b) more screen time in general. Alas, this is perhaps the best version of Sharon Carter we’ve seen in the MCU, and we barely see her at all.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

But back to the story. At Camp Lehigh, Steve discovers a computer containing the electronic consciousness of Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), the Red Skull’s (Hugo Weaving) lackey from the first Captain America, who was hired on by S.H.I.E.L.D. as a scientist after the Nazis fell, presumably as a part of Operation Paperclip or the MCU equivalent. Zola secretly grew Hydra, the Nazi rogue science division he and the Red Skull were a part of, within S.H.I.E.L.D. until it spread to the top, including World Security Council secretary Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). 

Pierce is a memorable villain precisely for how ordinary he is. He’s every high-ranking bureaucrat you’ve ever seen, operating on cool logic and played perfectly by Redford in an inversion of his role in Three Days of the Condor, back when he looked a bit like Steve Rogers. “What if Pakistan marched into Mumbai tomorrow,” he posits to a member of the World Security Council, “and you knew that they were going to drag your daughters into a soccer stadium for execution, and you could just… stop it. With a flick of this switch. Wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you all?” All the deaths Pierce plans to wreak are smoothed over by good old logic, but at Project Insight as well as Hydra’s heart is fascism.

So Steve sets out to stop Pierce and Hydra, and he and Natasha join up with newcomer Sam Wilson, aka Falcon. Anthony Mackie has an easy charisma onscreen, and provides a bit of levity in one of the most serious Marvel movies out there, proving himself a valuable addition to the MCU (an addition which, of course, will only get bigger and bigger). 

When Sam tells Steve and Natasha his wings are locked behind a fort, they shrug and tell him it’s not a problem, and we cut to Sam having already procured the wings. One of The Winter Soldier’s strengths is its trust in its audience: it has a somewhat unwieldy plot for an MCU entry, but largely avoids huge exposition dumps and overly obvious reminders of the storyline. The audience has well-earned faith in these characters by now, and in turn this movie has faith in its viewers. 

The trio’s plan to use Hydra mole/fake S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jasper Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernández, reprising his role), however, falls apart when the Winter Soldier and Hydra jump them. The ghosts of Steve’s past come roaring to the forefront as the Winter Soldier is revealed to be none other than his childhood best friend, Bucky Barnes, brainwashed and turned into an assassin by Hydra. While the plot elements from Ed Brubaker’s original comic run featuring the Winter Soldier are completely different, Winter Soldier the movie still contains the thrust of its character beats, including the now-iconic “Who the hell is Bucky?” line

Understandably, this revelation throws Steve into a tailspin. He seemed to have made peace—or at least a tentative treaty—with the modern world and the personal losses brought with it, but here comes a blow that knocks him completely out of orbit, a living ghost perfectly preserved as he was in the 1940s but missing that crucial spark of humanity, that easy smile and charm, replaced instead by the empty shell of a killer.

For a certain corner of the internet circa 2014, a corner largely populated by teenage girls, the Steve/Bucky relationship became an obsession: whether you viewed Steve and Bucky as platonic or romantic, it was everywhere—it was hot guys acting torn up and tortured inside, so what’s not to love? Sebastian Stan’s performance as Bucky in particular—a mostly mute performance, but one brimming with inner turmoil and a deep vulnerability underneath that expressionless assassin mask—sent ripples through the fandom corners of the web. “Stucky,” as it’s called, became a sensation, for better or worse, and lines like “Even when I had nothing, I had Bucky” and “I’m with you till the end of the line” became peppered over the internet. (The “ship” itself, of course, is harmless, and a way for some fans to create some LGBTQ representation for themselves, since the MCU has been severely lacking in that department, but some of its fans are something else entirely—but let’s table that discussion until Civil War, when the Steve/Sharon kiss drew their ire and coaxed out some very virulent misogyny.) 

For a character with only a handful of lines—despite being one of the two titular characters—Bucky makes quite an impression as the Winter Soldier, helped by his cool-looking metal arm and cool-sounding theme by Henry Jackman. The great showdown on the helicarriers as Steve and company bring down Hydra has its grand CGI moments, as Marvel is wont to do, but the final fight between Steve and Bucky feels more visceral and emotional than most MCU finales, full of stabbings and punches but also loss and grief intermingled with hope.

Bringing down Hydra, though, means bringing down S.H.I.E.L.D. as well, tossing away the whole bad egg. Taking down the organization that shaped much of Phase One is certainly a bold move; unfortunately, this will have more of an impact on the television show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. than the MCU, seeing as Joss Whedon will resurrect a helicarrier in Avengers: Age of Ultron and have a S.H.I.E.L.D. skeleton crew help with the mess at Sokovia. 

Still, it’s a huge leap for The Winter Soldier to take, and though it’s one largely undercut by the next big team-up movie (thanks, Joss!), at the time it felt like a Big Deal. It was a risk, and showed that Marvel was willing to blow it all up—even if the fallout from this and subsequent blowups is never as steep as we expect. The illusion of change, as I’ve discussed.

Even if the storylines of the MCU only veer so far off the side of the road, The Winter Soldier did permanently change the nature and perception of Marvel films. It lived more easily in its shared universe than Iron Man 3 or Thor: The Dark World, as it wasn’t afraid to bring in preexisting characters even as Captain America remains a focal point; it had big plot points with ramifications outside a teamup movie; most importantly, it showed that superhero movies don’t only have to be superhero movies. Post-Winter Soldier, the diversity of Marvel films flourished. We had the ’70s political thriller of Winter Soldier, and that paved the way for the action comedies of Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok, for teen coming-of-age flicks like both Spider-Man entries, for Black Panther and Eternals

Yes, obviously there are common threads and tropes running through all of these films—you can only go so far with a monstrous corporation like Marvel had become by this point, especially one owned by Disney and concerned with remaining palatable to the masses—but Winter Soldier feels distinctly unique within the Marvel canon: tight, visceral, light on quips (it’s probably the least funny MCU film) but heavy on thrills, exciting action choreography, and character moments. It deftly balances the introduction of new characters (well, maybe not Sharon) that will shape the future of the MCU while ripping the rug out from underneath the existing ones, and brims with a fresh energy sorely needed after The Dark World. If Phase One was the birth of the MCU, Winter Soldier is where it grows up.

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • Not groundwork, but an easter egg that’s been pointed out many times before: the Bible passage quoted on Nick Fury’s fake tombstone, Ezekiel 25:17, doesn’t exist, and is a nod to Samuel L. Jackon’s Pulp Fiction character, who quotes this fictitious passage.
  • “Last time I trusted someone, I lost an eye.” This line of Nick Fury’s will be explained in Captain Marvel, which… hm. No comment.
  • The S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who refuses to initiate the Project Insight launch sequence also appears briefly in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
  • Oh, look, a Stephen Strange namedrop from Sitwell.
  • Robert Redford showing up in Avengers: Endgame was one of the most shocking cameos in a movie built on shocking cameos.
  • During computer Zola’s discussion about the Winter Soldier, a newspaper headline appears proclaiming that Howard and Maria Stark have died in a car accident, heavily implying that the Winter Soldier is the one that caused it. This will be an enormous source of conflict in Captain America: Civil War.
  • Batroc the Leaper (Georges St-Pierre), the leader of the pirates on the ship in the opening act, appears again in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which is fun. He does more leaping in that.
  • Steve’s notebook also appears in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Obviously that show takes a lot of cues and characters from this film, but some of the smaller ones are a bit less noticeable to a more casual viewer.
  • Both in this movie and the original Captain America, Bucky very briefly picks up Steve’s shield, a nod to his time as Captain America in the comics and foreshadowing in case the MCU decided to go down the Bucky-Cap road (which, of course, they did not, ultimately going with Sam Wilson, another shield-wielder in the comics).
  • If you stopped watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. midway through season one because it was mediocre, the episodes set after Winter Soldier, when Hydra is revealed to have been inside S.H.I.E.L.D. all along, skyrocket in quality, and it keeps going up from there (generally). Just saying. They also do some time traveling in season seven and Project Insight plays a part in their travels.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Where to begin? The hand-to-hand fight on the Lemurian Star, the “who the hell is Bucky?” fight on the highway, Robert Redford slapping around shirtless Sebastian Stan, the elevator fight, Natasha and Steve having a heart to heart which gives Natasha more characterization in two minutes than the entirety of Iron Man 2… the list goes on.

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. The Avengers, 3. Captain America: The First Avenger, 4. Iron Man 3, 5. Iron Man, 6. Thor, 7. Thor: The Dark World, 8. Iron Man 2, 9. The Incredible Hulk

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Trailer

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: The Avengers

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Avengers, assem— wait, not yet, that comes later.

80/100

Take a moment, if you will, to go back to summer of 2012. I was 13 years old, about to enter eighth grade and be at the top of the middle school food chain, when my sister dragged me to see The Avengers against my will. I was an intellectual, I protested, who didn’t want to see some dumb superhero movie. I had taste.

Well, all those complaints died pretty quickly, and here I am almost a decade later, still invested (perhaps overly so) in these dumb superhero movies. 

The Avengers was a cultural phenomenon. It was ubiquitous, it was unavoidable; references dripped from everyone’s lips, memes were spawned, records were broken. For a period, it was the third-highest grossing movie of all time, and still stands at a very comfortable eighth place. It transformed the burgeoning Marvel Cinematic Universe into a fully-fledged monstrosity, cementing Marvel’s theatrical and cultural dominance; for many, this would become their Star Wars. It was Big in a way that no one could have predicted. The Avengers proved that the previous films weren’t simply flashes in a pan, and that Marvel was here to stay​​—like it or not.

In hindsight, it seems obvious that it would work, now that we have three other Avengers movies under our belt, but at the time, it was risky: there was every chance that these characters, when thrown in a room together, would refuse to gel. This wasn’t the self-contained Spider-Man trilogy, nor was it the X-Men movies, which came with a pre-formed team. This was something new, a grand cinematic gamble that had every chance of crashing and burning. A Russian assassin, a World War II veteran, a wealthy playboy, a man with anger issues, a guy with a bow and arrow, and a Norse god all walk onto a helicarrier—it sounds like the setup to a bad punchline. On top of that, at the time of production, both Thor and Captain America hadn’t come out in theaters yet. No one knew how audiences would receive these characters or the more outlandish aspects of these movies, but The Avengers hinged upon them; if their respective movies did poorly, there was nothing Marvel could do.

But somehow, impossibly, it all worked. How?

It certainly helps that we had five solo movies to establish each character beforehand by the time of The Avengers’ release. Audiences knew Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). If you watched the previous MCU films, you were automatically invested in the stakes of this one—even more so, now that you were watching your favorite characters interact. 

Still, even if you walked in with no prior knowledge (as I did), the movie carefully takes its time to reestablish its characters in the opening third. We are reacquainted with S.H.I.E.L.D. boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who have been working with scientist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) to uncover the secrets of the Tesseract, last seen falling into the ocean at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger. When Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives through a portal in space powered by the Tesseract and begins wreaking havoc, putting S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner, first glimpsed in Thor but given a tiny bit more to do here), aka Hawkeye, under mind control, Fury decides it’s time to finally activate the Avengers Initiative, first mentioned in the end credits scene of Iron Man

So, Fury goes to collect the de-iced Captain America, who has been working out his feelings of loss on sandbags at the gym. (I have a very distinct memory of rewatching The Avengers for my 14th birthday party with all of my friends and having a lightbulb go off in my brain during this scene. There were several pause requests, for no particular reason.) Coulson gets sent to collect Tony in his new Stark Tower, and Natasha is dispatched to India to find Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).

Ruffalo is at a disadvantage here: all the other key players have already been introduced in prior movies, and while Bruce Banner had his own movie, Ruffalo did not, and taking over for another actor midstream is never easy. However, even despite this, Ruffalo immediately puts his own stamp on Hulk; his Banner is simultaneously kinder, sadder, and more frightening than Norton’s, making him quite a bit more interesting. When he later says the now-oft-memed line, “That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always angry,” you buy it.

Everyone boards the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier to apprehend Loki, who has been setting himself up as humanity’s savior. “The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity,” he informs the crowd. Where Loki in Thor was a rather tortured figure, here he becomes a full-fledged villain, trying to become Earth’s fascistic ruler in order to assuage his own insecurities and ego. It’s enormous fun, and Hiddleston is solid as always. The Avengers stop his plan and bring Loki aboard the helicarrier, meeting Thor in the process (so much for being stranded on Asgard with a broken Rainbow Bridge), and then we are well and truly off to the races now that everyone is in the same room.

Much of the credit for Avengers’ success has to go to director and writer Joss Whedon; even with all the gross allegations against him that have come to light, it is still thanks to him that The Avengers works as well as it does. While these accusations should be treated with the utmost seriousness (and are made even worse by the fact that Whedon built his initial career by positioning himself as a feminist icon with works like Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Whedon was the director who truly solidified the MCU, and he did it well—though depending on your view of the MCU at large, his work in making it a cultural juggernaut may just be another strike against him. His fast-paced dialogue keeps things from getting too bogged down, and his obvious love for these characters shines through with enthusiasm; it’s a comic book movie made by a comic book nerd, but one still accessible to everyone.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

Marvel has come under criticism for having too many quips and jokes thrown around, robbing certain scenes of any emotional impact; while the amount of jokes per film actually vary wildly (think of Captain America: The Winter Soldier versus Thor: Ragnarok), it seems that tendency largely originated from Whedon in The Avengers. Sure, Tony has a snide comment for everything in his solo outings, but here the quips come a mile a minute. While Whedon would overplay this in Avengers: Age of Ultron, here the gags work, by and large; they help establish a repartee between characters who previously had no interaction with each other, and the awkwardness of some of these interjections (“I do! I understood that reference”) only serves to highlight the awkwardness of the characters as they are thrust into this unfamiliar situation. Plus, they can be pretty damn funny: “[Loki] is of Asgard and he is my brother.” “He killed 80 people in two days.” “He’s adopted.” Worthy of a chuckle, at least.

The best thing about Avengers isn’t the big fight scenes (though those certainly can be a blast), it’s watching all of these actors and characters bounce off each other. Tony tries his hardest to push Bruce’s buttons, Thor watches everything with a certain level of amusing bemusement, Natasha rolls her eyes at all this posturing. The rapid-fire Whedon dialogue works like gangbusters, and he manages to give each character in his ensemble cast individual moments even in the team scenes.

The only thing that mars the more character-driven beats is Steve: he functions too much like a polished Boy Scout here, with none of the recklessness and smartassery that was present in Captain America: The First Avenger. Steve spends most of The First Avenger lying to his superiors and breaking rules, but here he berates Tony for investigating S.H.I.E.L.D.’s shady business? I’m not buying it. Whedon opts for the oversimplified, caricatured Steve Rogers, an easier version of a character that should be far more complex than what this script gives him. It stands out even more upon rewatch when there are more movies to compare against, movies where Steve Rogers continually flouts the chain of command to follow his own largely unerring moral compass. Steve is unmoored and set adrift in time, but there are better ways to play that up than an overreliance on his apparent old fashionedness.

Still, even with that misfire, the banter in The Avengers is just fun. You feel like a kid in a candy store, but like all your favorite candies had combined into one great delicious candy. (I’m not great at metaphors.) The film is at its best when foregrounding character over spectacle; the emphasis on the people behind the masks, the shields, the hammers, is what has given Marvel its staying power in the cultural consciousness and what made The Avengers a phenomenon in the first place. Mindless blockbusters are a dime a dozen, but rarer are the ones where you genuinely worry about a character’s safety, or where their deaths can make theaters full of grown men and women cry (see: Endgame). That’s what sets The Avengers apart. When all these characters come together for the first time, you remember it in a way you don’t remember Transformers. The Avengers may be a dumb superhero movie, but it’s one anchored by a beating heart.

But, of course, we can’t stay in character land forever: this is a superhero movie, after all, and so we need some big fights.

Several things happen all at once: the gang discovers that S.H.I.E.L.D. has secretly been building weapons of mass destruction (a government organization up to no good in a Marvel film? Say it ain’t so!), a verbal fight erupts in the science lab between everyone, and the brainwashed Hawkeye attacks the helicarrier. This spurs our heroes into action, but by then, Coulson has died (apparently), Thor and Bruce have been grounded (but separately), and Loki has escaped. Finally, this disparate group of people realizes that they need to work together.

What follows is just an excuse to have your favorite comic book heroes go and punch things. The Battle of New York (as it’s known in-universe) could certainly stand to be shaved down several minutes, and the alien Chitauri suffer from bland-generic-evil-henchmen-in-Marvel-movies syndrome. The Avengers’ final act is its weakest: no matter how cool it might be to see Hulk smash some bad guys, the fight against these nameless alien hordes goes on for too long. 

But damn if that circle shot of the assembled team with Alan Silvestri’s now-iconic theme swelling in the background doesn’t inspire a quiet little fist pump. We’ve had the setup in the previous five movies; here is the payoff. And it works. 

The Avengers is the first real Marvel movie: not just an action movie, or a superhero movie, but first and foremost a Marvel movie. It establishes the fun, zippy tone that by and large dominates the MCU. It—and I don’t think I’m exaggerating here, given just how enormous Marvel has become—starts an empire. Without the rousing success of The Avengers, the MCU might have fizzled and waned; with its triumph (your mileage may vary on how pretentious you think the use of that word is here), Marvel put its stamp on the collective cultural consciousness in a way not seen for a long time. Within the span of four years, Marvel transformed from a struggling studio forced to sell its best assets just to keep afloat to a pop culture juggernaut—so what’s next?

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • What’s up, Thanos?
  • Loki’s scepter contains the Mind Stone, and will next be seen in the hands of Hydra as they use it to grant powers to Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
  • That whole scene between Loki and Natasha provides a lot of groundwork for Black Widow. “Dreykov’s daughter” becomes not just a throwaway line but a significant plot point, and Natasha will repeat tactics she used on Loki with Ray Winstone’s Dreykov, including her iconic “thank you for your cooperation” line. It doesn’t work as well the second time around, though, and feels a bit lazy. Oh, well.
  • “This is just like Budapest all over again” also gets addressed in Black Widow. (Before the ill-fated Black Widow/Hulk romance and Hawkeye’s farm family in Age of Ultron, a thousand pieces of fanfiction spawned from that single line.)
  • The clock on Grand Central Station gets destroyed in this film and in subsequent outings gets replaced by a monument to first responders to the Chitauri invasion.
  • Coulson’s death will begin a whole #CoulsonLives movement online, eventually resulting in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., where Clark Gregg reprised his role for seven seasons. (Though he wasn’t playing Coulson all those seasons, and in fact plays a Life Model Decoy—first mentioned in The Avengers by Tony—in season seven. It gets complicated.) The cellist that he mentions to Tony here will also show up in season one, played by Whedon alum Amy Acker. 
  • The World Security Council that repeatedly frustrates Nick Fury in this via the Marvel version of Zoom will pop up in person in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
  • Gideon Malick (Powers Boothe), a member of the World Security Council, will appear in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (including a younger version played by Cameron Palatas) and be unmasked as a Hydra agent. In fact, there are lots of Malick family members working for Hydra. This probably isn’t canon anymore, but as Kevin Feige has not come out and directly said that S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t canon, I will cling to it.
  • Enver Gjokaj, another frequent Whedon collaborator, plays an NYPD officer here; he’ll go on to play Daniel Sousa in Agent Carter and, later, S.H.I.E.L.D., leading to a lot of different theories about this officer, but he turned out to be just a random cop and not related to Sousa at all. 

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Tony wheedles Bruce in the lab about the whole Hulk situation, producing what the internet will dub the “Science Bros” and revealing quite a lot about both characters involved. Or the Loki and Natasha interrogation, because Hiddleston is so great and the twist is fantastic (the first time around, at least).

MCU Ranking: 1. The Avengers, 2. Captain America: The First Avenger, 2. Iron Man, 3. Thor, 4. Iron Man 2, 5. The Incredible Hulk

The Avengers Trailer

The Avengers is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Captain America: The First Avenger

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Time to punch some Nazis!

75/100

Captain America has recently come under fire for a new comic from Ta-Nehisi Coates featuring the star-spangled man with a plan that criticizes the American Dream, with superhero actors Dean Cain and Kevin Sorbo accusing Marvel of politicizing Captain America. (This also comes after the villainous Red Skull was depicted with similarities to Jordan Peterson.) Yet, no matter where you stand on the controversies that have followed the Cap comics, from his conception Captain America has been a political construct: Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Cap and had him punching Nazis in the face even before America had entered World War II. Pointedly, Cap has always tried to stand for what America should be, not what it is or has been (except for that arc where a Cap imposter was a Nazi, which caused no drama whatsoever). 

In the MCU, the movies have had to refrain from anything other than sweeping statements like, “Nazis bad,” or “government surveillance bad,” as they cater to a larger audience than the comics, but the spirit of Steve Rogers’ comic origins are still visible enough throughout his cinematic tenure, starting with the pleasantly old-fashioned Captain America: The First Avenger. (It’s also a lot easier to avoid issues of overly aggressive American exceptionalism when your bad guys are literal Nazis.) 

Part of its winsome charm comes from the 1940s setting, making The First Avenger Marvel’s first period piece—though don’t conflate it with the high-falutin dramas that usually populate the genre; it’s still first and foremost a superhero movie. Director Joe Johnston had already balanced these genres in The Rocketeer, so he seemed a natural fit for this MCU entry, and proves himself more than up to the job of balancing the time period with superheroics. It’s all very Indiana Jones. (While Johnston would only direct this film, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely would become mainstays of the MCU.)

America has entered World War II, and Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers is raring to go fight the good fight but is hampered by his small frame (Leander Deeny acted as Evans’ body double for the first part of the movie, and the head grafting usually looks decent) and litany of health issues. His childhood friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has already been drafted, and Steve’s frustration has grown to where he has begun to lie on his enlistment forms in an effort to somehow join up. His determination to help in any way he can attracts the attention of Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German scientist helping the Allies’ war effort by providing them with a serum to create a super soldier. 

Steve gets whisked away to Camp Lehigh in New Jersey, where he meets the prickly colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and the no-nonsense Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Marvel often casts unknowns in leading roles, or, if not unknowns, at least someone unexpected; in this case, Chris Evans was mostly known for romcoms and non-MCU Marvel’s Fantastic Four duds. To compensate for their lesser-known leads, the MCU will populate the roles around their heroes with big names: Jeff Bridges in Iron Man, Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo in Thor, and, in The First Avenger, Tommy Lee Jones and Stanely Tucci.

These casting choices generally pay off, giving the audience someone new to fawn over while the veterans keep the performance quality high. Here, Tucci and Jones give some of the most memorable one-off Marvel performances; Erskine in particular, while only appearing in the first third of the movie, has stayed fresh in the minds of audiences: he is, after all, the one who lays down the ethos of Captain America: “Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”

This isn’t to say that The First Avenger’s leading man falls short—not by any means. Chris Evans, in addition to being ridiculously good looking, is ridiculously charming; it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role, though he initially turned down the role. Evans’ Steve is someone we all want to root for, representing that ideal American gumption and gusto without any of the country’s baggage. Yet while it could be easy to paint Steve Rogers as a goody two-shoes, as someone with a stick up his ass who probably goes to church each Sunday and buttons up his shirt all the way, the character we are presented in the MCU, and the one we are shown by Evans, is much more interesting than that (though Joss Whedon will fall slightly into caricature in The Avengers, unfortunately): the first thing Steve does in The First Avenger is lie. He lies on an enlistment form to boost his chances of helping the war effort, so the lie isn’t a nefarious one, but Steve still consistently bends or outright breaks the rules to follow his own largely unfailing moral compass; he has never been one to simply follow orders and do things by the book. He’s smart, too, and not just some tail-wagging Golden Retriever. If not quite as complex as Tony Stark or Loki, Steve still—to quote a certain green ogre—has plenty of layers. Good is not dumb, nor is it boring.

While Steve fails to impress physically, he proves himself worthy of the super soldier serum when he jumps on a grenade (unaware that it’s a dummy) to absorb its explosion while everyone else runs away, convincing even Colonel Phillips that he can handle the responsibility of Erskine’s super soldier serum. Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) arrives to assist, a mirror image of his son: smart, suave, self-important, though with less of the guilt and self-loathing. 

Steve Rogers then gets really, absurdly ripped. If Peggy has already been attracted to his innate goodness, this surely helps that attraction along. 

Unfortunately (though maybe fortunately, so America wouldn’t have a race of blonde-haired, blue-eyed super soldiers…), any chance of recreating this effect is dashed when an agent of Hydra (Richard Armitage, who definitely should get brought back for a bigger MCU role), an offshoot of the Nazis, kills Erskine. Steve, instead of getting to sock Nazis in the jaw on the front lines, is then used as a tool of the government to get more war bonds; his tenure as the government’s dancing monkey gives us a great musical number and a chance to lampoon the government: they stifle the real spirit of America, instead packaging some propagandic patriotic prattle in song and dance and costumes. (Again, this “real spirit of America” is much easier to portray during World War II, with clear-cut bad guys. Later on, it gets a little bit more complicated.)

Only with Peggy’s encouragement does he break out and begin to actually do something with his power. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) and Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), aka the Red Skull, have been up to no good, capturing Allied forces—including Bucky Barnes—as part of their nefarious work for Hydra, so Steve ditches his role as senator attaché and goes to save his comrades. 

Where Marvel typically tries to tone down some of its comic book origins in order to make the movies more palatable, Red Skull’s design is ripped straight from the comic pages in all its campy, pulpy glory. The preceding MCU movies have all tried to ground themselves even as their subject matter gets more and more outlandish, resulting in something like Thor, which fails to commit fully to its otherworldly premise. The First Avenger marks the first time that Marvel fully embraces its source material: it’s good vs. evil, superhuman vs. superhuman, good old American boy vs. Nazi with a red skull. It throws any pretension away and basks in its absurd comic book glory, a much better movie for it.

To even out the absurdity, we have the very real relationships between the characters. Steve’s close connections with Bucky and the Howling Commandos (Neal McDonough as Dum Dum Dugan, Derek Luke as Gabe Jones, Kenneth Choi as Jim Morita, Bruno Ricci as Jacques Dernier, and JJ Feild as James Falsworth aka the superhero Union Jack, though only a normal guy in the films) give him an anchor; his relationship with Bucky in particular will remain important in the MCU and spark the imaginations of thousands of Tumblr and Twitter users, though it’s not given quite enough heft here.

The real heart of the movie, however, is Steve’s relationship with Peggy. Despite only being developed for one film, this relationship has proved to be one of the strongest in the MCU (perhaps too strong, but more on that with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Endgame), and due to Hayley Atwell’s vibrant portrayal, Peggy received her own spinoff show, Agent Carter, and appears in Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Avengers: Endgame, and two episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Peggy and Steve serve as the film’s beating heart, giving the ending a gut punch and real emotional heft that the MCU films have largely lacked so far. It’s a testament to the depth of these characters that they can carry such weight in a movie where the main villain looks like this.

Upon revisiting The First Avenger, it’s remarkable how well the film has aged; while Iron Man deserves props (or boos, depending on your view of the MCU as an entity) for kickstarting the MCU, it feels largely rote when compared against the slew of other films that come after. The First Avenger, on the other hand, has a unique setting, and while it still lays the foundation for future entries, the film is still largely self-contained. Reverberations from its events can be found all over the MCU, but it’s less concerned with setup for the future and more so with payoff for the now, making it a satisfying entry on its own. It can get a little too silly at times, but it’s always fun and upbeat, a reminder of what Captain America can look like without the 21st century cynicism he becomes riddled with in later entries. Looking back after ten years, this may hold up better than Iron Man—this is a spicy and hot take, I know—and certainly helped reset the trajectory of the MCU after some more lackluster entries, setting them on firm ground before they take a big risk with The Avengers.

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • Hey, it’s the Tesseract with an Infinity Stone inside. Wonder if that will be important later.
  • Hey, the Red Skull used aforementioned Infinity Stone and got sucked up into space. Wonder if he will show up later. (He will, but not as Hugo Weaving, who has been open about the pay disputes with Marvel that led to Ross Marquand appearing as Red Skull in Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame.)
  • Hey, no more super soldier serum exists. Wonder if anyone will make knockoffs and that will be important later.
  • Before the Hydra base is blown up, Zola rescues some blueprints for what looks like a robot, a nod to his comic look; in Winter Soldier, they will adapt this so that Zola lives through a computer program as a head on a screen.
  • Boy, sure hope hiring Zola and other Hydra members to help the United States doesn’t bite anyone in the ass.
  • There’s a common saying that “the only people who stay dead in comics are Bucky, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben.” That has now been whittled down to only Uncle Ben, as Bucky gets revived as the Winter Soldier by Ed Brubaker, a fate that will befall our filmic Bucky as well (and Jason Todd is also alive now, coming back as the Red Hood in DC comics). No one knew at the time if The First Avenger would get a sequel or if it would even adapt the Winter Soldier arc, so they filmed two versions of Bucky’s fall: one where Sebastian Stan had a green screen sleeve on his arm, and one without. Though they ended up using the latter, Bucky will still appear sans an arm in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
  • Howard and the Howling Commandos show up in Agent Carter, and some Howling Commandos show up in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with Peggy. Will I be able to bring up S.H.I.E.L.D. in every retrospective? Stay tuned!
  • Kenneth Choi, who played Howling Commando Jim Morita, shows up in Spider-Man: Homecoming as Mortia’s grandson.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Dr. Erskine and Steve have a chat before the procedure, producing that classic MCU line: “Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The First Avenger (I welcome your Twitter arguments), 2. Iron Man, 3. Thor, 4. Iron Man 2, 5. The Incredible Hulk

Captain America: The First Avenger Trailer

Captain America: The First Avenger is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streamable on Disney+.

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